Thursday, December 8, 2016

Acid Trips- The History of LSD

LSD-25's chemical structure.
Art inspired by acid.

Few things are as intrinsically linked with the 1960s era of sex, drugs and rock n' roll as lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as LSD or acid. This hallucinogenic drug was used by celebrities, hippies, and (secretly) the CIA through out the decade to open minds, transcend the world, and many other reasons. But people may not realize that the hallucinogenic that inspired acid has existed, and made impacts upon, humanity for centuries. The average person also may not realize how close discovery of acid was to not happening. And I would bet that most people are not even remotely aware that acid was tested on thousands of people during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s by CIA scientists looking for a truth serum. Most people (and I was among those people until researching this article) see the word "acid" and think of hippies, tripping and being able to hear colors or understand how the universe works. But that is only a small aspect of the history of LSD, a story filled with intrigue, history, cultural impacts and close calls, which we will explore today.
Hippies trying to make a buck on LSD.

St. Anthony's Fire

A witch poisoning people?
Throughout history, there have been times where an area has gone absolutely insane. The people would become intensely sick, suffer vibrant and terrifying hallucinations, suffer terrible burning and pain sensations in their limbs, or an inability to control themselves. Hundreds of years ago, with significantly less knowledge of science and medicine, people often believed that areas suffering from this madness were dealing with possession by the devil, poisoning or witchcraft. 
St. Anthony
A painting describing the temptations of St. Anthony.
These occasional outbreaks of madness became known as St. Anthony's Fire. The disease was named after St. Anthony, one of the earliest Christian monks, around 300 CE. In Christian doctrine, Anthony was one of the first Christians to flee to the desert to study theology and pray, literally founding the monastic lifestyle. Anthony became famous for his lifelong struggle with what he believed to be the Devil's temptation, in which he suffered from terrible visions and temptations against his chastity, piety, and courage. Through constant prayer and penitence Anthony was able to overcome his struggles and settle into a life of devoted monasticism in which he wrote many of the texts that became commonplace for later Christian monks. In the 12th century, some of his followers founded the Order of Hospitallers of St. Anthony near Grenoble, France. This quickly became the prominent location for  people suffering from St. Anthony's Fire to go for a cure. The disease was named after Anthony because sufferers often dealt with psychotic breaks and terrible visions similar to what he had dealt with in the desert.
Ergot next to regular rye grain.
A painting of a man suffering ergotism.
Today, scientists believe that many, if not all, cases of St. Anthony's Fire were caused by ergot poisoning. Ergot is a species of fungus that grows on rye and other cereal grains. When a head of rye or wheat is infected with ergot, it is slowly overgrown by the spores of the fungus, until it looks like a black, swollen kernel of wheat or rye If the ergot fungus is harvested with the wheat or rye and consumed by humans, they will suffer "...painful seizures and spasms, diarrhea, paresthesias, itching, mental effects including mania or psychosis, headaches, nausea and vomiting." If an entire medieval city, with limited knowledge of fungal growth and medicine, were to suddenly start suffering those symptoms, would witchcraft or demonic possession really seem so unlikely?
A hallucination caused by St. Anthony's Fire.
The Salem Witch Trials
A "witch" being hung in Salem, when everyone may have just
 been suffering from ergotism.
There have been a number of times when St. Anthony's fire has struck a town or city and driven the town mad. Most notably, psychologist Linnda Caporael argues that ergot poisoning was one of the root causes of the famed Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1693. In the 1970s she made a compelling argument for ergotism being one of the root causes of the Salem Witch Trials. She cites descriptions of the behavior of "witches" from the trials, and the descriptions contained many of the same things that are described as symptoms of ergotism: violent muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, crawling sensations on the skin. Carporael also read diary entries of local residents in the time period, who described weather conditions perfect for the growth of ergot. In fact, all of the people who were accusers during the Salem trials lived in a particularly swampy part of Salem in which the fungus would have thrived. Rye was even the main food source for most residents of Salem, so if there was ergot present, everyone would have been eating it! When the "bewitchments" stopped even lines up with a significant change in the local weather pattern that would have made ergot growth almost impossible. All of this evidence makes a compelling argument for ergotism, and not witchcraft or any of the other reasons proposed by historians over the years, as the main cause of the Salem Witch Trials. The people of Salem were suffering from an unexpected 1692 version of a bad acid trip!

The Creation of LSD-25

You may be asking, why are we reading about ergot and rye and St. Anthony's Fire in an article about
Medicine with ergotamine in it.
LSD? Well, ergot contains a number of chemical compounds in it that have various medicinal uses. One of these compounds is ergotamine.  Ergotamine (as part of ergot) has been used historically for its medicinal qualities: to treat migraines, as well as during childbirth- both to induce labor and to prevent bleeding after birth. The use of straight ergot for these benefits stopped around 1800 when doctors began to realize all of the negative effects that it caused (see above). But in 1918 the Swiss biochemist Arthur Stoll, who had recently been appointed head of the pharmaceutical department at Sandoz Chemical in Switzerland, developed several new methods for creating medicine. One of these new methods allowed him to isolate ergatomine from ergot, which he then turned into medicine for migraines and heart disease.
Arthur Stoll

Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD.
Research continued on ergot and similar plants and fungi for the next two decades. In the early 1930s, another Sandoz Chemical employee, Albert Hofmann, working closely with Arthur Stoll, began to derive new compounds from ergotamine, including lysergic acid. Different versions of his compounds were used to create several new medicines. In 1938, Hofmann created his 25th derivative of lysergic acid, which he called lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25. Hofmann hoped that LSD-25 would be useful for improving circulation or blood pressure, but preliminary tests showed little promise and his research was abandoned. The supply of LSD-25 was put into storage or destroyed, and little more thought was given it. It seemed certain that LSD-25 would be forgotten, all of it's mind-altering potential never unlocked.

Then, one of the strange little quirks of history occurred to bring LSD-25 back from the dead. Albert Hofmann had continued in his research after abandoning LSD-25, giving his old creation little thought. Then, for no apparent reason, in April 1943, Hofmann began to think obsessively about LSD-25 again. He began to have the distinct feeling that the drug had not yet been fully explored. So five years after his work on the subject had been abandoned, Albert Hofmann synthesized a new batch of LSD-25 and began to research again. While making his new batch of LSD-25, however, Hofmann began to feel strange. In Hofmann's own words:
  [I was] ...affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness...sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed... I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.
Fan art of Hofmann taking LSD for the first time.
Albert Hofmann had experienced the world's first true (though accidental) acid trip, and a strange new world was born. When he went into work the next day, he did a decidedly unscientific thing when he intentionally ingested more than ten times what we now know to be the minimum dose of LSD to determine the true effects. Hofmann became the first person to intentionally drop acid, only a day after becoming the first person to accidentally do it! Once again, Hofmann began to experience intense changes in his perceptions of reality. A slightly panicked (and heavily tripping) Hofmann asked his laboratory assistant to help him get home safely. Because of gasoline restrictions due to World War II, the pair had to ride bicycles home. The experience of the bike ride and the intensity of the experience led to rapid deterioration, and by the time he got home, Hoffman was in need of a doctor, as he believed his neighbor was an evil witch, that he was going insane, and that he had been poisoned by the LSD. When the doctor arrived at his house, Hofmann was diagnosed with no abnormalities besides extremely dilated pupils. His fears alleviated, Hofmann began to mellow out and enjoy himself, and began to experience what we would now describe as a "good trip."
Delysid, medicinal LSD.
A poster (and later a hit of LSD) with a drawing
 of Hofmann riding his bike home high on acid.

After experiencing such intense effects, Albert Hofmann wanted to let others in on his new secret. He quickly told some of his co-workers at Sandoz, whom decided that they also wanted to try this new wonder drug. They quickly realized that he had made a massive discovery, and Hofmann believed that he had discovered a "powerful new psychiatric tool," something that opened people's minds to new possibilities and might be a cure for a number of mental illnesses. Continued research (and self-dosing) on animals and then people by Hofmann and his peers led to the development of a new medicine, Delysid, in 1947.  Sandoz Chemical urged doctors to perform psychological tests on patients with and without mental illnesses using LSD. Sandoz also recommended that doctors take it themselves so that they would understand what their patients were experiencing. This led to a massive increase in medical (and in some cases recreational) use of LSD in Europe and the United States. The popularity of the drug increased rapidly, drawing international attention and thousands of scientific studies and experiments on the drug.

By the mid-1960s there was a pronounced backlash against the drug, as many people began to see the drug as corrupting it's users. By 1966 Sandoz had completely stopped making it, meaning that the vast majority of acid in the world was coming from non-official sources. In 1968 the drug was reclassified as an illegal drug, with a minimum sentence of one year for possession. This prohibition was spurred in part by people who had family members negatively affected by LSD use. It was also pushed by a conservative and media-backed effort to discredit LSD-users as drop-outs and hippies who were a drain on society. Making it illegal did not really stem it's use in the general public. But behind closed doors, there was a much more sinister group of people experimenting with LSD- as a weapon.

Operation MK-ULTRA
The CIA tried to keep MK-ULTRA a secret.

Who were these devious people experimenting with LSD as a weapon? Soviets? China? No, the organization that opted to try out LSD as a weapon was the Central Intelligence Agency. In the fear and chaos of the early Cold War, many in the United States were willing to believe anything about the "commies" in Russia and China. So when rumors began to spread in the US that Russian, Chinese and North Korean spies were using a secret drug to force captured American soldiers to tell the truth, or even to control those soldier's minds (a literal Manchurian candidate), the CIA felt it needed to respond in like fashion.

In 1953, CIA director Allen Dulles ordered the creation of Operation MK-ULTRA, to be headed by Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a CIA chemist and poisons expert. The operation was a huge umbrella for a number of smaller research projects to study various methods of chemical warfare, but the main goals cited were: mind control, manipulation and discrediting of foreign leaders, truth serums, as well as means of hypnotism, assassination and torture with the use of drugs.
Sidney Gottlieb

While a number of different drugs were used during the span of MK-ULTRA, the first and most commonly used drug was LSD. The earliest goal of this testing was to see if LSD could be used for mind control. Early tests were done on prisoners, mental patients, drug addicts and prostitutes- all of which were done against the victims wills, and were illegal. The drug addicts and prostitutes were often even illegally lured into compromising situations and then drugged without their knowledge, and drug addicts were occasionally bribed with heroin. Perhaps more heinous, however, was the testing of LSD on mental patients and prisoners who had no say in the matter and were forced to participate. In one study, a mental patient in Kentucky was administered LSD more than a hundred days in a row!

News articles and Congressional reports on MK-ULTRA.
The CIA quickly went from cruel use of LSD to reckless use when it became clear that there was almost no oversight on MK-ULTRA. CIA agents, including people in leadership positions, began having LSD parties. Frequently, agents would dose each other's drinks secretly to see how unsuspecting targets would react. It became well known among CIA agents during the era that "surprise" acid trips were an occupational hazard. In several incidents, there would be two different punch bowls at a party- a clean one and an LSD-laced one, with no warning to guests of which was which. But this reckless use of mind-bending drugs did have consequences. Several of the unsuspecting victims, unknowingly dosed with acid, would subsequently have mental breakdowns, including at least one CIA scientist, Frank Olson, who was committed to a mental institution and eventually committed suicide.

Part of the reason for these "surprise" dosings of LSD was that CIA leadership realized that there was a difference between people on LSD in a laboratory setting and one in which people were suddenly exposed to it without warning. The reason the CIA needed to understand the difference between these two styles of being on acid was for potential political sabotage. The CIA believed that with proper research and planning, LSD could be covertly administered to foreign (or domestic) government officials without their knowledge. These official's corresponding bizarre behavior while they dealt with hallucinations could then be used to discredit them, effectively allowing the CIA to use LSD to eliminate "enemies" without killing them, by destroying their credibility. This was especially possible if the targets could be dosed before major speeches. There is significant evidence that a specific CIA target was Cuban president/dictator Fidel Castro, with a number of schemes to drug him considered over the years. With so much unscientific "testing" of LSD under MK-ULTRA, it should not be too surprising that the CIA did not make much scientific progress in finding legitimate uses for the drug.
Fidel Castro, whom the CIA wanted to drug with LSD.
With a lack of success and news of the operation leaking to the public beginning in the 1960s, MK-ULTRA was reduced in 1963 and 1967, and stopped altogether in 1973. LSD use by the CIA, however, petered out in the early 1960s, viewed as being too unpredictable. It was also around that time that the CIA began to discover new "super-hallucinogens" which were viewed as more likely candidates for MK-ULTRA's goals. 

MK-ULTRA was officially disbanded in 1973, during the crazy days of anti-secrecy sentiment that had emerged in the United States after the Watergate scandal. CIA fear that the information about the operation would become public led to CIA Director Richard Helms ordering all papers linked to the operation being destroyed. While most information was destroyed, a small percentage of papers did survive, along with the many witnesses and victims who had taken part in MK-ULTRA. While the loss of all these documents made a full investigation impossible, enough information survived that much of what happened came to light. The American public first became aware of allegations of MK-ULTRA in 1974, when the New York Times published a story about possible illegal testing on unwitting Americans. That story led to a series of investigations by Congress of the CIA and FBI. These investigations revealed all of the stuff we just read about- unwitting test subjects, reckless testing, at least one death, and a number of morally dubious decisions on the part of the CIA that outraged the citizens of America. American outrage led to President Gerald Ford issuing an Executive Order banning the testing of drugs on human subjects. This was expanded by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to ban all human testing.

Some interesting theories and anecdotes have emerged in the decades since about possible MK-ULTRA operations. Notable victims who were tested upon during the operation include: 
  • author Ken Kesey, who volunteered for LSD experiments at Stanford University, went on to be a major advocate for LSD nationally, and went on to write One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.
    Ken Kesey with his famous book.
  • Song-writer Robert Hunter, who also volunteered for testing at Stanford. Wrote and performed with the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan, and wrote his first lyrics for the Dead while high on LSD.
  • James "Whitey" Bulger, Boston mob enforcer, volunteered for testing while in prison in the 1960s
    Whitey Bulger
  • The attorney for Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin who killed presidential candidate (and younger brother of John F. Kennedy) Robert Kennedy, alleged that Sirhan was under the influence of drug-induced hypnotism when he killed Kennedy.
  • Historian H.P. Albarelli Jr. Argued in his 2009 book A Terrible Mistake that the CIA was also behind the 1951 outbreak of madness in the tiny French city of Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1951. The city experienced an outbreak of mass hysteria, psychosis and illness remarkably similar to... St.
    A French newspaper article about the
    horrors in Pont-Saint-Esprit.
    Anthony's Fire. The outbreak led to more than thirty people being committed to mental institutions, and seven deaths. While the outbreak has been linked to natural ergotism, mercury poisoning, and other causes, Albarelli has some compelling evidence that points to the CIA testing LSD on a large scale. The outbreak happened right as MK-ULTRA was being formed. There was also strong evidence that Frank Olson was in Port-Saint-Esprit at the time of the outbreak. Frank Olson, you may remember, was the CIA agent who committed suicide in 1953 after being exposed to LSD- the only death linked to MK-ULTRA. However, it was proved in 1994 that Olson had been knocked unconscious and thrown to his death-he did not commit suicide after all!. Albarelli argues that Olson was killed because the CIA feared he was having a moral crisis after his exposure to LSD, and was only days from confessing his involvement in MK-ULTRA- including his role at Port-Saint-Esprit. Albarelli's research showed that Olson had been in Port-Saint-Esprit at the time of the outbreak, and that Olson's position with the CIA at the time involved the development of aerosol delivery systems, which would have been a likely way for LSD to be exposed to the French city. All of this evidence points to a compelling possibility of even more CIA recklessness. But does that surprise you at this point?
    Frank Olson, who may have been killed for
     his knowledge about MK-ULTRA.

A Cultural History of Acid

The Beatles, probably the most famous
band of the 1960s, and users of LSD.
The discovery of LSD had major impacts on the medical and government sectors of the United States. But we would be remiss if we did not explore the impact of LSD on popular culture. So much of popular art, music, and the mid-twentieth century era in general were defined by LSD and similar cultural icons. The hippy, peace love and rock n' roll era of the 1960s will forever be linked with acid. Many major bands from the era- the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Jimmy Hendrix, the Doors, Bob Dylan- all used LSD during their careers. Authors too did not escape the pull of LSD- Ken Kesey of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest fame, for one, had LSD tested on him during MK-ULTRA and later became a major advocate of the drug. In the 1960s, LSD became a cultural mainstay.

TIME Magazine cover warning
 about the dangers of LSD use.
Music in the 1960s was especially impacted by LSD. The Beatles were dosed by their dentist- without their permission- in 1965. A few months later they intentionally took it again. Soon the Beatles music began to show the influences of acid. Most notably, their song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds  (LSD?) is believed by many to refer to the drug, though the Beatles have always denied this. Several of their other drugs also show the influences of acid. Around this same time, the music that became known as "psychedelic" or "acid" rock began to become more mainstream, with bands
Some of the most famous acid rock bands.
The bus the Merry Pranksters drove around
the country in praising LSD use.
The Grateful Dead
like Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead becoming nationally famous. The Grateful Dead might even have had a greater impact on the history of LSD. Several historians, as well as the CIA, argue that the Grateful Dead are responsible for introducing LSD to the mainstream. The Dead were the house band for a number of parties hosted by Ken Kesey and his friends, known as the "Merry Pranksters." These parties were known as Acid Tests, and for most people at these parties, it was the first time they had ever been exposed to LSD. Historian Jesse Jarnow argues that Grateful Dead concerts served as the main avenue for LSD distribution in the United States in the second half of the 20th century! Music and LSD in the era were incredibly intertwined.
The Beatles around the time they wrote
"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

Art was also impacted by the mind-bending nature of LSD. Like musicians, a number of artists used acid to open their minds and help them to be more creative. LSD itself even became an art form. The small pieces of blotter paper which were soaked in LSD and sold as "hits" of acid were frequently decorated by artists or drug dealers, with cartoon characters, natural drawings, peace signs and a wide assortment of other designs. Today there are even people who collect old "acid art." There was an impressive array of artistic skills poured into acid blots throughout the years!

A collection of acid blotter art.
There were also people who became cultural icons of the era simply for their use and advocacy of LSD and their links to the other cultural movements of the era. Arguably the most notable was Dr. Timothy Leary. Dr. Leary was a lecturer at Harvard University who was exposed to psychedelics in the early 1960s. He became obsessed with them, especially LSD, and began to study the effects of LSD on mental illnesses. Leary claimed that in one study he did on prisoners, 90% of those tested on
Leary's most famous book.
did not return to prison (although his numbers have been seriously challenged). Soon his experiments with LSD on students began to become well known on campus, and many students began to take LSD. Parents and Leary's fellow professors began to complain about Leary's activities. When Leary took an extended and unexcused absence from the university in 1963, he was fired from his position.
Leary with his most famous quote.

In 1964, Leary co-published the book The Psychedlic Experience: A Manual Based On the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This book attempted to link LSD use to the supernatural death and rebirth of Tibetan Buddhism, among other influences. Leary moved to Mexico for a time to continue experimenting with psychedelics, but he was thrown out. When he returned, he founded a new religion, the "League for Spiritual Discovery," whose main religious claim was that LSD should be
A pamphlet from
The League for Spiritual Discovery.
taken frequently. Leary argued that for freedom of religion, LSD must be kept legal. He was unsuccessful in finding many judges that were sympathetic to his argument. While on a tour of the country to give public talks about LSD, Leary also coined the famous phrase, "Turn on (to acid), tune in, and drop out," which became a rallying cry for hippies and LSD enthusiasts. Around this time President Richard Nixon called Leary the most dangerous man in America. In 1969, Leary announced he was running for governor of California against incumbent Ronald Reagan. His campaign slogan was "Come together, join the party." A few months later he met with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Montreal, where they endorsed him and wrote him a campaign song, called "Come
Leary's campaign poster.

Leary and his wife with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
Together." Not long after, Leary had a series of run-ins with the law that led to a number of stints in prison. Several times he was able to escape to prison, and he even fled to Europe for a time. Eventually he was returned to the United States, where he finished his prison sentence and began to write. When he was released in 1976 by former (and current) Governor Jerry Brown, he began to travel the country lecturing about LSD and his books. He remained a relevant figure in American culture throughout the 1980s, as he developed friendships with people as diverse as G. Gordon Liddy, Johnny Depp, and Dan Akroyd. He also became obsessed with space colonization, technology, and the Internet. He died of cancer in 1996.

LSD was also seen in popular culture as a cure for any number of ills. Things as seemingly distinct as alcoholism and world peace were described by various "acid experts" as having their cures in acid. Advocates like Dr. Leary argued that the things LSD could help with were almost limitless. Unfortunately, because the drug was illegal, it was very difficult for medical testing to be done on it, so the medicinal uses of LSD are not nearly as well known as the could be. Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of this is that Dr. Leary, perhaps the most famous advocate for LSD as medicine, is criticized by many as being one of the greatest reasons that LSD, especially medical LSD, is illegal in the United States today.


The United States in the 1950s-1970s were transformed by a number of related trends. The Cold War, peace, love, rock n' roll, drugs, Civil Rights, anti-war sentiment, mistrust of the government- all of these are intrinsically linked with that time period . And LSD was at the forefront of all of these trends. LSD was part of the revolution that transformed the United States. The United States was forever changed after those crazy decades, and LSD helped drive the whole thing! What a trip!
The chemical structure of LSD.


  1. Bryant, Charles and Josh Clark. "Did the CIA test LSD on Unsuspecting Americans?" StuffYouShouldKnow Podcast, posted 11 November, 2008 at Retrieved 10 October, 2016.
  2. Bryant, Charles and Josh Clark. "How LSD Works." StuffYouShouldKnow Podcast, posted 5 May, 2016 at Retrieved 10 October, 2016.
  3. Freeman, Shanna. "How LSD Works." HowStuffWorks. Retrieved on 10 October, 2016 at
  4. Lee, Martin A. and Bruce Shlain, Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond. (1985, New York: Grove Press).
  5. "St. Anthony's Fire- Ergotism." Posted October 1, 2000 on, retrieved 10 October 2016.
  6. "The Witches Curse: Clues and Evidence." PBS. Posted at Retrieved on 12 October, 2016.
  7. A number of Wikipedia pages, including Lysurgic acid diethylamide, ergot, St. Anthony's fire, Albert Hoffman, Woodstock, Timothy Leary, the Grateful Dead, Operation MK-Ultra, ergotism and a number of other pages.

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