LSD before Leary – Sidney Cohen’ s Critique of 1950s Psychedelic Drug Research, Steven J. Novak, 1997

LSD before Leary – Sidney Cohen’ s Critique of 1950s Psychedelic Drug Research

Steven J. Novak

Isis, 1997, Vol. 88, No. 1, pp. 87-110.



In 1962 Sidney Cohen presented the medical community with its first warning about the dangers of the drug LSD. LSD had arrived in the United States in 1949 and was originally perceived as a psychoto-mimetic capable of producing a model psychosis. But in the mid 1950s intellectuals in Southern California redefined LSD as a psychedelic capable of producing mystical enlightenment. Though LSD was an investigational drug, authorized only for experimental use, by the late 1950s psychiatrists and psychologists were administering it to cure neuroses and alcoholism and to enhance creativity. Cohen’s 1960 study of LSD effects concluded that the drug was safe if given in a supervised medical setting, but by 1962 his concern about popularization, non-medical use, black market LSD, and patients harmed by the drug led him to warn that the spread of LSD was dangerous. The subsequent government crackdown and regulation of LSD preceded the 1960s drug movement and was prompted by medical, not social, concerns.

IN CONGRESSIONAL HEARINGS ON LSD held in 1966, Timothy Leary asserted that the drug was “remarkably safe,” citing a key 1960 article by Dr. Sidney Cohen. When Cohen himself testified, however, he contradicted Leary. He told Congress that LSD was safe only if administered under strict medical supervision and that in the wrong hands it was “a dangerous drug.”‘

The conflict between Cohen, a physician, and Leary, a layman, prefigured subsequent divergent historical interpretations. There are no historiographical schools on the drug movement, but both critics and partisans of LSD have embraced Cohen’s 1960 article. The medical establishment criticized overzealous 1960s enthusiasts like Leary for meddling in medical affairs: “In 1960, ten years after [LSD] was introduced into psychiatry, its therapeutic prospects were still considered fair and the dangers slight. Then the debate received an infusion of irrational passion from the psychedelic crusaders and their enemies. . . Twenty years after its introduction it was a pariah drug, scorned by the medical establishment and banned by the law.“2 On the other hand, proponents of LSD have attributed the medical profession’s opposition to the wire-pulling of the CIA or to doctors’ fear of social change. Thus one account blasted an anti-LSD editorial by saying, “[Roy S.] Grinker cited no data to back up these rather serious charges. He cited no data for the simple reason that there were none-Sidney Cohen’s 1960 study on adverse reactions was still unchallenged in the literature. What Grinker was doing was projecting his own professional biaes.”

To illuminate this debate, this article, based on new archival material and oral history interviews, analyzes Cohen’s pioneering studies of the safety of LSD. Through this lens one can obtain a behind-the-scenes look at the tensions between physicians and intellectuals in defining LSD’s meaning, plot the shift of LSD research from a scientific investigation into a cultural crusade, map the spread of LSD in the 1950s, and elucidate the medical profession’s alarm over LSD, which led to government passage of tighter regulations of psychedelic drugs. Before Timothy Leary, who first took LSD in 1961, catapulted to the national scene by being fired from Harvard in 1963, Sidney Cohen had sounded the alarm that LSD was being abused and hurting people.”


Cohen came to LSD research with a strong background in pharmacology. Born in 1910, in New York City, he was one of seven children of a Lithuanian-Jewish shoe shop owner. He majored in pharmacology at City College of New York and Columbia University, then earned an M.D. in 1938 from the University of Bonn. During World War I1 he served in the Army Medical Corps in the South Pacific. After his discharge he took a residency at the Wadsworth Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles, adjacent to the University of California, Los Angeles, and then accepted a position as an internist across the street at the Brentwood VA Hospital for mentally ill ~ervicemenW.~h en Wadsworth and Brentwood affiliated with the new UCLA School of Medicine, Cohen became an assistant clinical professor, supervising interns and graduate students. Handsome and prematurely gray, he gained a reputation as a popular teacher with an infectious enthusiasm for research. (See Figure 1 .)

Cohen’s interest in mental illness stemmed from his responsibilities at Brentwood. He puzzled over how to diagnose the physical ailments of his mute, catatonic, irrational patients. As he sought to explore the patients’ physical symptoms, his first publications dealt with diagnostic physical probes. Next he shifted toward biochemistry, publishing a case study on Cushing’s syndrome in which he warned that the overproduction of adrenal cortical steroids that caused the disease was often undetectable and that patients should be given frequent “urinalysis, blood chemistry studies, renal function and glucose tolerance test^.”^

Cohen grew intrigued by the mental and behavioral side effects of diseases and drugs. In 1951, after an accidental overdose left a patient “acutely psychotic” and paranoid, he undertook a study of the effects of Banthine. Cohen also wrote a survey of toxic psychoses, temporary breaks with reality due to disruption of the body’s biochemical homeostasis. He observed that toxic psychoses were “unexpected and almost unpredictable” and could result in “catatonic stupor, manic excitement, paranoid agitation, or a vivid hallucinosis.” His toxic psychosis research led to his interest in LSD. In his 1953 survey he first mentioned other investigators’ research on LSD, a drug that at this time he said caused “a transient psychosis in all subjects.”‘ LSD-25, lysergic acid diethylamide, was a new investigational drug available only to physicians for research purposes. It had been synthesized in 1938 at the Basel, Switzerland, laboratories of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, by the chemist Albert Hofmann. Hofmann discovered its mind-altering properties in 1943 when he accidentally ingested a minute quantity and thought he was going mad. For years psychiatrists had searched for a chemical cause of insanity but had failed to find measurable abnormalities in the blood or urine of psychotics. What made Hofmann’s discovery so exciting was that LSD worked in almost infinitesimal doses. Other drugs were measured in milligrams, thousandths of a gram, but LSD was measured in micrograms, millionths of a gram. Hoping that LSD might have clinical applications, Sandoz brought it to the attention of scientists, and samples reached
the United States in the fall of 1949.8

Though the idea that LSD per se caused insanity was soon abandoned, researchers began to experiment with LSD to induce a model psychosis in subjects. They sought to use it as a means of temporarily replicating the effects of mental illness, as a so-called psychotomimetic, like hashish and mescaline, which psychiatrists had previously employed. By the mid 1950s, LSD research was being conducted in major American medical centers as well as in Canada, England, and Europe. In the background of this research was the alleged “brainwashing” of American prisoners during the Korean War. Popular accounts of brainwashing claimed that “some drug or ‘lie serum’ may possibly be used to speed up collapse.” To determine whether LSD might be a truth serum or a form of chemical warfare, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly began to fund LSD research in 1953 and the Army Chemical Corps started its own tests in 1955.1° Because LSD was originally perceived as hazardous, the subjects of the early experiments were often soldiers, mental patients, prisoners. conscientious objectors, animals, medical school staff members, and physicians themselves.” A few early investigators refused to take LSD, while others who tried it said they experienced only unpleasant or inconsequential effects.12 To guard against untoward reactions, doctors conducted experiments in clinics and laboratories. Subjects were monitored by EEG machines and polygraphs, had their words tape-recorded, and were given lengthy psychological and intelligence tests.

Though reactions varied, the usual LSD session included visual illusions, luminous, intense colors, undulating lines and multiple images in geometric patterns; dissociation, loss of ego boundaries, distorted body image; an elongated sense of time; synesthesia- “seeing” sound or “hearing” sights; emotional lability, giggling and weeping, anxiety and detachment; and a tantalizing sense of portentousness or incompleteness. The question was what-if anything-these symptoms signified.

The early LSD researchers concluded that their subjects went through a temporary psychosis, most commonly categorized as schizophrenia or paranoia. Subjects performed poorly on tests, made perceptual errors, and exhibited loss of concentration and regressive behavior.13 Even the euphoria sometimes present was defined as manic and hebephrenic.14 Researchers had anticipated deleterious effects. The widely used questionnaire devised by the Harold A. Abramson lab in New York presented all of its questions in negative terms. Forty-eight percent of Abramson’s subjects said they felt unsteady, 41 percent weak, 40 percent peculiar, 27 percent anxious, and 26 percent nauseous. By the mid 1950s, when this first wave of LSD research reached the public in popular magazines, undergoing the effects of LSD was portrayed as a harrowing experience.15


lsd before leary - sidney cohen's critique of 1950s psychedelic drug research (march 1997)