Tuesday, April 19th will be Bicycle Day 2022 and will represent the 79th anniversary of the accidental discovery of the psychic effects of LSD. On this day in 1943, Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann was the first human to deliberately ingest what he thought was a minuscule amount of a compound he had created five years previously in 1938 while researching ergot for his employer, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland. This compound was LSD or lysergic acid diethylamide and was created by Hofmann in his laboratory as part of a systematic pharmaceutical exploration of lysergic acid derivatives and with this 25th variation, Hofmann had hopes of discovering a medicine that could stimulate respiration and circulation. It was given the lab name of LSD-25 and was tested by the Sandoz pharmacological research department. The new substance had a contracting effect on the uterus but animal testing only mentioned that the animals seemed restless after dosing but nothing remarkable was noted and so LSD-25 was shelved and forgotten.
“Tuesday, April 19th will be Bicycle Day 2022 and will represent the 79th anniversary of the accidental discovery of the psychic effects of LSD. On this day in 1943, Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann was the first human to deliberately ingest what he thought was a minuscule amount of a compound he had created five years previously in 1938 while researching ergot for his employer, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland.”
Five years later, Hofmann had a “peculiar presentiment” about LSD-25 which was a feeling that something had likely been missed in those previous tests and so on Friday, April 16, 1943, he synthesized another batch to submit for further pharmacological tests. By the time Hofmann reached the final stage of the synthesis, he had to stop working because he noticed he was experiencing some very unusual sensations. In a report later written to his Sandoz superior, Arthur Stoll, Hofmann wrote:
Last Friday, April 16, 1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be un-pleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away. (Hofmann, pg. 47)
Hofmann was perplexed about what could have caused this highly unusual experience and the only causal connection he could surmise was that somehow he must have absorbed a small amount of the LSD on his fingertip during synthesis. He found this very difficult to believe because he was such a neat and fastidious scientist and he was keenly aware of the toxicity of ergot substances. In addition, the amount he would have accidentally absorbed would have been infinitesimal which, if true, would make LSD an almost unbelievably potent substance. Therefore, he made the decision to test this explanation by intentionally ingesting some LSD three days later.
“Therefore, he made the decision to test this explanation by intentionally ingesting some LSD three days later.”
Albert Hofmann's Background
It is important to note that Albert Hofmann was not a man who was prone to taking inordinate risks, impulsive flights of fancy or frivolous pursuits of hedonism. By all accounts he was a very practical, deliberate and humble man who had known and overcome adversity in his life. He was born in Baden, Switzerland on January 11, 1906 to Adolf and Elisabeth Hofmann and his father’s job as a foreman in a factory only allowed for modest living circumstances in a multi-family dwelling. Hofmann as a child loved nature and reported that during these early years in the forests near Baden, he would have occasional spontaneous experiences where nature would appear luminous with an otherworldly beauty and this began a lifelong fascination with organic chemistry and a yearning to understand the underlying structures of the natural and material world. He was a brilliant student but at 12 years old his father fell seriously ill and Hofmann had to leave school and earn money for the family. His godfather eventually offered to pay for his education and he started to formally study chemistry in 1926. Hofmann eventually earned his doctorate in medicinal chemistry from the University of Zurich in 1929 and took a job as a research chemist at Sandoz. Several years later he married and started a family of four children with his wife, Anita, and attained the rank of first lieutenant in the Fortress Artillery Battalion of the Swiss Army. He was a conservative, serious scientist and a first-rate chemist but on that April afternoon in 1943, a young Albert Hofmann was determined to test his “peculiar presentiment” about LSD.
“He was a conservative, serious scientist and a first-rate chemist but on that April afternoon in 1943, a young Albert Hofmann was determined to test his “peculiar presentiment” about LSD.”
The First Experience - Bicycle Day
Since he was testing a new and unknown compound, Hofmann decided to begin with what he believed would be the smallest dosage that could possibly provide some hint as to what he had previously experienced three days earlier. He chose to ingest 250 micrograms of LSD which was only 250 millionths of a gram and he found the substance to be odorless and tasteless. Since LSD is one of the most potent substances on the planet, Hofmann had just ingested a relatively sturdy dose that is indeed capable of producing the wide-ranging effects LSD intoxication later become known for. On a note that some readers may find humorous, Hofmann’s laboratory notes indicate that he ingested the LSD on Monday, April 19, 1943, precisely at 4:20 pm. Forty minutes later his entry read, “Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh” (Hofmann, pg. 48). Hofmann later stated that he had the utmost difficulty trying to write the last words of his laboratory notes and he knew he needed to get home.
Since it was wartime and fuel was scarce, Hofmann had been bicycling to work and so he asked his assistant, Susi Ramstein, to accompany him home. On this famous bicycle ride, Hofmann was feeling the full effects of the LSD and because he had no frame of reference for what he was experiencing, the now threatening shapes of the houses, the wavy streets and the distorted images of the people he passed were creating some significant anxiety and concern within himself. Hofmann felt like he was making very slow progress on his bicycle but later Ms. Ramstein told him that he was traveling at a very fast clip and that she had to peddle hard to keep up with him. When Hofmann got home and sent for the doctor, he found that he could no longer stand and lay on the couch and noticed to his horror that his familiar furniture and surroundings were pulsing and moving and taking on grotesque forms. A neighbor lady came over with milk to help neutralize the “poison” and Hofmann scarcely recognized her since she now looked like a malevolent witch wearing a colored mask.
Hofmann found that for about two hours, he was in a state of “severe crisis” and his internal world was as unsettling as the outer world appeared. He was terrified to discover that, “All of my efforts at will were in vain” and that there was nothing he could do to stop the dissolution of his ego or the outer world. Hofmann later wrote that he began to fear for his sanity and that he had ironically destroyed himself with a chemical that he himself had brought into the world. His wife and their children had traveled to see her parents in Lucerne and Hofmann was beginning to think that they would be fatherless, his beloved chemistry research work would be over and that he would become nothing but a cautionary tale of foolish self-experimentation. It boggles this writer’s mind as to what it must have felt like to be in this state and to have no idea what was happening or if one were safe or had caused severe brain damage or permanent insanity. By the time the doctor arrived, the crisis was showing signs of passing and Hofmann felt immense relief and gratitude as he noticed that his familiar surroundings were slowly returning and he felt confident that he was not going insane.
At that point, Hofmann writes that he was able to lay on the couch with his eyes closed and enjoy the fascinating parade of colors and shapes. He writes:
Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux. It was particularly remarkable how every acoustic perception, such as the sound of a door handle or a passing automobile, became transformed into optical perceptions. Every sound generated a vividly changing image, with its own consistent form and color. (Hofmann, pg. 50)."
His wife arrived home after hearing from a neighbor that her husband was having a breakdown of some kind and he was able to speak intelligibly at that point to her about the events of the day. That night, he reports that he was exhausted and slept and that when he awoke the next morning, he was:
…refreshed, with a clear head, though still somewhat tired physically. A sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me. Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure. When I later walked out into the garden, in which the sun shown now after a spring rain, everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day (pg. 50). "
“When I later walked out into the garden, in which the sun shown now after a spring rain, everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day.”
After Bicycle Day
Hofmann was also astonished to discover that after the experience ended, he could clearly remember the details of his intoxicated state. His report to his superior, Professor Arthur Stoll, was met with incredulity about the minuscule dosage used and Stoll doubted the veracity of Hofmann’s reported experience. However, later, the head of the Sandoz pharmacology research department and two of his colleagues each agreed to ingest a third of the dose Hofmann had used and their experiences erased all doubts about the potency of LSD and what Hofmann had reported experiencing.
Thus began the strange and terrible saga of LSD, the most misused, misunderstood and maligned of the psychedelic compounds….
Sandoz made LSD readily available to almost any medical or mental health professional with an interest in exploring potential uses for this strange and powerful new substance and initially there was great curiosity and enthusiasm regarding its promise. The initial thinking was that LSD was a psychotomimetic or a “mimicker of madness” and it was believed that the study of LSD would help illuminate the biological underpinnings of schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses.In some ways, it is argued, LSD helped pave the way for the antipsychotic medications that were created in the 1950s. Later it was used in the training of psychiatrists, psychologists and other professionals to give them a tangible, temporary experience of psychotic processing in order to help them understand and better relate to their psychotic patients. LSD was also tested on the severely mentally ill, often in psychiatric hospitals and detention facilities without their informed consent, and for many years, the CIA ran covert experiments on unwitting members of the public to learn how LSD could influence behavior. Their secret program, MK-Ultra, conducted experiments often devoid of ethicality or concern for the well-being of their subjects in their quest to learn if LSD could be used as a weapon or an interrogation agent. However, there was also a large, growing movement exploring using LSD as a healing tool for ailments as varied as alcoholism, schizophrenia, depression, chronic pain and patients facing the psychological challenges of terminal illness. Although some of the studies were not optimally designed or tightly controlled, the results were generally encouraging and, in some instances, cases that had not responded to conventional treatments showed very significant improvement. At one point in the mid-1960s, there were over 1000 professional papers and journal articles published and four international scientific conferences were hosted devoted to LSD research. An unexpected outcome of some of the MK-Ultra experiments that took place on college campuses was that young people were exposed to LSD and this led to it “escaping the lab” and making its way out into the streets. This led to many people unprepared for the psychological and perceptual upheavals that LSD can precipitate and the tales of tragedy made their way from the emergency rooms to the front pages of the newspapers and eventually Time magazine. LSD also likely contributed to the genesis of a counterculture that, for the first time in US history, had hundreds of thousands of young people demanding an end to war and a re-evaluation of American values which many conservative Americans feared seriously threatened the integrity of the country. Nixon’s ensuing War on Drugs successfully shut down all the legitimate scientific LSD research in the United States by 1976 but did very little to curb illicit recreational use.
“LSD also likely contributed to the genesis of a counterculture that, for the first time in US history, had hundreds of thousands of young people demanding an end to war and a re-evaluation of American values which many conservative Americans feared seriously threatened the integrity of the country.”
At this point, regarding LSD research, very little has changed except for a study done in Switzerland by Dr. Peter Gasser from 2007-2012 that examined LSD’s utility as a medicine for easing the anxiety of 12 terminally ill patients. The results of this well-designed study demonstrated significant lasting improvement in the anxiety of most participants and the results were published in 2014 in the peer-reviewed Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. I do not anticipate that LSD research will start anew in the United States any time soon. There are several reasons why some of the other psychedelic medicines being studied currently may be better suited for providing treatments for mental health issues and LSD continues to have a lot of negative cultural connotations attached to it. However, during the height of psychedelic research in North America from 1950 to 1970, LSD was the most widely studied of the psychedelics and there was enough encouraging data collected to warrant revisiting this medicinal substance again in the future.
For folks wanting to do more of their own investigations into the fascinating history of LSD, there are several books I would recommend checking out. For what I consider to be the single best book ever written on the medical and cultural history and significance of LSD, I unhesitatingly recommend reading Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay Stevens. This book was originally published in 1988 and then went out of print but I was happy to learn recently that it has been resurrected since the resurgence of psychedelic medicine research. This book is well-researched and very well-written and, at times, hilarious. It is very much worth your time. For those interested in further exploring the more nefarious corners of LSD research, I would recommend Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties Rebellion by Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain (1985). For a deeper dive into this area of military and intelligence agency LSD research, Hank Albarelli’s A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Cold War Experiments (2009) is a massive (800+ pages) undertaking but one that will take the reader into the darker aspects of what certain elements of our government were sponsoring at the time. For readers interested in learning more about how LSD was used as an adjunct to psychotherapy, Stan Grof’s Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research (1975) provides an excellent and accessible overview of how Grof worked with LSD treating clinical populations. Grof’s follow-up book, LSD Psychotherapy (1980) provides much more detail about working with this population and by following the course of treatment on some of his very severe cases, one can realize how challenging and, at times, harrowing that work could be and what courage it took for early researchers like Grof to stay with his patients’ processes and see the treatment through to its conclusion. Erika Dyck’s Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD From Clinic to Campus (2008) is a well-written exploration of the LSD research that was taking place in Canada where researchers such as Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer were treating severe alcoholics with a single large dose of LSD and getting surprisingly positive results.
In conclusion, in honor of the man who inspired Bicycle Day, I would like to close with a few words about Albert Hofmann. After he discovered LSD and its potent effect on humans, he wanted nothing more than to see LSD studied and understood so that it could be used safely and responsibly for human healing and growth. He knew of its potential dangers as well and Hofmann was dismayed to see young people using it recklessly and felt that any work with LSD was a serious personal endeavor that required preparation, guidance and the utmost respect for the power of the mind. Hofmann was a deeply spiritual man with a lifelong reverence for nature and the natural world and felt that humanity had a sacred responsibility to protect and preserve the Earth. On January 16, 2006, about 2,000 scientists, technologists and artists convened in Basel, Switzerland at an international LSD Symposium to honor Albert Hofmann on his 100th birthday. He opened the Symposium with a 20-minute talk in German where he talked about how LSD “called to him” and that the only reason he was able to discover it was that he did not “work correctly” and had serendipitously stumbled upon LSD’s effects. Therefore, as a result, he advised those in attendance (with a likely twinkle in his eye) that the pursuit of perfection was a useless and ultimately futile occupation. Albert Hofmann passed peacefully away at his beloved home in Switzerland early on the morning of April 29, 2008 at the age of 102 years old.
All quotations used in this blog were taken from Albert Hofmann’s autobiographical LSD, My
Problem Child: Reflections on Sacred Drugs, Mysticism and Science which was originally published in 1979 but the page numbers cited in this blog are from the 2005 edition. This is an excellent read that will take you deeper into the life and mind of this extraordinary man. For those wanting a more detailed look at his life and contributions, I highly recommend Mystic Chemist: The Life of Albert Hofmann and His Discovery of LSD (2011) by Dieter Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmuller. I picked this up at MAPS’ Psychedelic Science conference in Oakland, CA in 2017 and found it to be full of information about Hofmann that I was unaware of previously. And finally, for a glimpse into the nature-based spirituality that sustained him his entire life and some of his philosophical writings on the nature of perception and reality, Insight/Outlook (1989) is a relatively short book that exposes one to the psychedelic-inspired wisdom accumulated during 80 years of Hofmann’s inspiring life.
I hope that everyone has a wonderful Bicycle Day 2022!
“After he discovered LSD and its potent effect on humans, he wanted nothing more than to see LSD studied and understood so that it could be used safely and responsibly for human healing and growth.”