Flashback : Psychiatric Experimentation With LSD in Historical Perspective, Erika Dyck, 2005

Flashback : Psychiatric Experimentation With LSD in Historical Perspective

Erika Dyck

Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 2005, Vol 50, No 7, 381-388.

Doi : 10.1177/070674370505000703


In the popular mind, d-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) research in psychiatry has long been associated with the CIA-funded experiments conducted by Ewen Cameron at the Allen Memorial Institute in Montreal, Quebec. Despite this reputation, a host of medical researchers in the post–World War II era explored LSD for its potential therapeutic value. Some of the most widespread trials in the Western world occurred in Saskatchewan, under the direction of psychiatrists Humphry Osmond (in Weyburn) and Abram Hoffer (in Saskatoon). These medical researchers were first drawn to LSD because of its ability to produce a “model psychosis.” Their experiments with the drug that Osmond was to famously describe as a “psychedelic” led them to hypothesize and promote the biochemical nature of schizophrenia. This brief paper examines the early trials in Saskatchewan, drawing on hospital records, interviews with former research subjects, and the private papers of Hoffer and Osmond. It demonstrates that, far from being fringe medical research, these LSD trials represented a fruitful, and indeed encouraging, branch of psychiatric research occurring alongside more famous and successful trials of the
first generation of psychopharmacological agents, such as chlropromazine and imipramine. Ultimately, these LSD experiments failed for 2 reasons, one scientific and the other cultural. First, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the scientific parameters of clinical trials shifted to necessitate randomized controlled trials, which the Saskatchewan researchers had failed to construct. Second, as LSD became increasingly associated with student riots, antiwar demonstrations, and the counterculture, governments intervened to criminalize the drug, restricting and then terminating formal medical research into its potential therapeutic effects.

 – This article reevaluates the use of hallucinogenic drugs in psychiatry.
 – The history of LSD experimentation sheds light on the challenges of incorporating

Key Words : LSD, neuropsychopharmacology, hallucinogenic drugs


The therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs have recently resurfaced as a topic of debate in neuropsychopharmacology. Recent research with the psychedelic drug MDMA, known popularly as “ecstasy,” suggests that this psychoactive substance may affect serotonin levels (1). Research units in the US are currently examining the usefulness of MDMA in treating pain in medical conditions such as
Parkinson’s disease and cancer and in psychotherapy with individuals suffering from PTSD (2). The current debate over the recreational drug ecstasy mirrors a debate that occurred in the 1960s, that is, the debate over the therapeutic uses of LSD. MDMA and LSD share active ingredients, and both alter perception, cognition, and mood (3). Both drugs incite debate as to whether their therapeutic benefit derives from the often-described feeling of heightened self-awareness produced by a psychedelic experience or whether the credit belongs to some as-yet-unknown or, at best, poorly understood metabolic reaction. Given the current preoccupation with rediscovering the possible therapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs, a reconsideration of the controversial history of LSD research in psychiatry is long overdue.

LSD-25 first appeared in the scientific literature in 1943. For nearly a decade, it attracted attention from the medical community for its potential contributions to psychiatric research. Throughout the 1950s, over 500 articles on LSD appeared in scientific journals, and none described the drug in terms of addiction or abuse. During this period, stories of LSD experimentation also occasionally appeared in the North American news media and depicted similarly promising summaries of the drug’s contributions to medical research. When Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary was fired in 1962 for his indiscriminant promotion of the drug, the story was national news, but even then, the balance of the articles on LSD remained positive. In 1966, this situation changed dramatically. Newspaper articles about LSD increased, and most warned of the drug’s dangers. Medical research soon followed with reports that LSD caused chromosomal damage, fetal abnormalities, and potential memory impairment. That same year, LSD took centre stage in a moral panic over drug use. Federal governments in the US, Canada, the Netherlands, France, and the UK banned the use of LSD—in some cases, without significant debate. Nevertheless, despite the moral panic and political diktats, some medical researchers continued to maintain that LSD had important therapeutic benefits. In fact, they argued that withdrawing LSD from mental health research programs would eliminate one of the most progressive therapy options introduced in the 20th century.

The history of LSD experimentation in psychiatry has been dominated by stories of its covert use by the US military and by the widespread abuse of “acid” by a predominantly US youth culture in the 1960s. These popular images, however, distort its history of clinical experimentation and the professional attitudes in the 1950s toward its medical value (4–7). When archived records from Canadian mental health researchers are examined and oral interviews are conducted with psychiatrists, patients, and volunteers from the early LSD trials, a much more complex history of LSD in psychiatry emerges.

In postwar Saskatchewan, with support from the newly elected Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, LSD experimentation was received positively. Based on their studies of LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs, psychiatrists Humphry Osmond in Weyburn and Abram Hoffer in Saskatoon developed a biochemical theory of schizophrenia. During the 1950s, they applied their research to the treatment of alcoholism and subsequently reported unprecedented rates of recovery after giving alcoholism patients a single intense therapy session culminating with a megadose of LSD. Clinics in British Columbia, California, New York, and Illinois employed similar techniques with analogous results. A small sample of
patients’ perspectives on the trials, collected more than 40 years after their treatment, offer intriguing personal testimony confirming that LSD cured their alcoholism (anonymous patient, personal communication, 2003 June 16). Although follow-up studies of this nature are fraught with interpretive,
ethical, and methodological challenges, the role of LSD in postwar psychiatric experimentation merits a balanced historical reconsideration.

In 1938, in search of a new migraine medicine, Swiss biochemist Albert Hofmann synthesized LSD at the Sandoz Pharmaceutical Laboratories. It was not until 1943, when some of the liquid chemical substance spilled onto his hand, that Hofmann had the first recorded LSD “trip.” Threequarters of an hour after absorbing some of the chemical into his skin, Hofmann experienced growing dizziness, some visual disturbance, and a marked desire to laugh. After about an hour, he asked his assistant to call a doctor and accompany him home from his research laboratory. In Hofmann’s mind, he was not on the familiar boulevard that led home but, rather, on a street painted by Salvador Dali—a funhouse roller coaster where the buildings yawned and rippled. Hofmann later wondered whether he had permanently damaged his mind (8,9). Hofmann’s serendipitous discovery of the chemical compound LSD introduced a new drug that subsequently inspired a flurry of medical interest (10,11).

LSD’s arrival on the medical scene was particularly timely. Throughout the 1950s, thousands of biochemical studies revealed a high level of enthusiasm for the possibility that chemical substances would revolutionize psychiatry by offering novel insights into mental illness. As psychopharmacologist
Thomas Ban argued, drug research in the 1950s was responsible for “dragging psychiatry into the modern world” (12, p 79). Indeed, psychopharmacological research in the 1950s was rewarded with 2 Nobel Prizes. One was awarded to Daniel Bovet for work on antihistamines, and another was awarded to James Black for his identification of histamine receptors. David Healy concludes that nearly all the antidepressants, including the SSRIs and antipsychotics, were developed from the psycho-pharmacological research that took place in the 1950s (13).

As noted above, these contemporaneous developments inspired confidence that psychopharmacological treatments would not only modernize psychiatry but would also pave the way for fundamental reforms in postwar mental health care. In 1952, for example, the widespread acceptance of antipsychotics was effectively launched by French surgeon Henri Laborit’s discovery of chlorpromazine (14). Over the next 3 decades, this drug and its progeny helped empty mental hospitals throughout North America and Europe. Chlorpromazine purportedly reduced psychiatric symptoms in patients to the extent that they could function in the community without institutional care. The consequent dismantling of psychiatric institutions revolutionized mental health care, as increased reliance on drug treatments demonstrated the enormous capacity of psychopharmacology to change its course.

Experiments with LSD began in earnest in the 1950s, alongside research on antidepressants and antipsychotics. Indeed, some LSD trials involved the same investigators who participated in studies of chlorpromazine (15–17). LSD was introduced into this environment on the assumption that
biochemistry would provide the discrete tools to eventually unlock the mysteries of the mind. Many scientists believed that LSD would be the drug to do this.