Pubdate: Sun, 28 Dec 2008
Source: New York Times Magazine (NY)
Page: MM39
Copyright: 2008 The New York Times Company
Note: The New York Times Magazine is a section of the Sunday edition 
of the New York Times
Author: Robert Stone


In the circles where LSD eventually thrived, the moment of its
discovery was more cherished than even the famous intersection of a
fine English apple with Isaac Newton's inquiring mind, the comic
cosmic instant that gave us gravity. According to legend, Dr. Albert
Hofmann, a research chemist at the Sandoz pharmaceutical company, fell
from his bicycle in April 1943 on his way home through the streets of
Basel, Switzerland, after accidently dosing himself with LSD at the
laboratory. The story presented another example of enlightenment as
trickster. As a narrative it was very fondly regarded because so many
of us imagined a clueless botanist pedaling over the cobblestones with
the clockwork Helvetian order dissolving under him.

At Sandoz, Hofmann specialized in the investigation of naturally
occurring compounds that might make useful medicines. Among these was
a rye fungus called ergot, known principally as the cause of a grim
disease called St. Anthony's Fire, which resulted in gangrene and
convulsions. Ergot had one positive effect: in appropriate doses it
facilitated childbirth. Hofmann set out to find whether there might be
further therapeutic applications for ergot derivatives. Indeed, he
discovered some for Sandoz, including Hydergine, a medication that,
among other things, enhances memory function in the elderly. Most
famously, of course, Hofmann's ergot experiments synthesized
D-lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate, LSD. On April 16, 1943, he
apparently absorbed a minuscule amount of the lysergic acid he was
synthesizing through his fingertips. He went home (he doesn't say how)
and subsequently submitted a report to Sandoz. This reads in part:

"At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicatedlike
condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated

A few days later at work, Hofmann decided to adopt the Romantic
methods of Stevenson's celebrated Dr. Jekyll. His experimental notes
commence: '4/19/43 16:20 0.5 cc of 1/2 promil aqueous solution of
diethylamide tartrate orally = .25 mg tartrate." By 1700 hours he was
reporting other symptoms along with a "desire to laugh."

The laughter was Mr. Hyde's, not Dr. Jekyll's, because for most of
this occasion Hofmann was in the grip of what less cultivated
experimenters would later call a bummer.

"A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind and
soul. . . . It was the demon that scornfully triumphed over my will."

Hofmann did make the journey home by bicycle, with the help of an
assistant. Contrary to legend, there is no record of his falling. As
the hours of Hofmann's investigation passed, he felt progressively
better. In the morning "everything glistened and sparkled."

On the basis of Hofmann's report, three other officials of Sandoz
sampled LSD. A psychiatric researcher at the University of Zurich, Dr.
Werner Stoll, repeated the experiment, and Sandoz came to the
conclusion that modified LSD-25 was a psychotropic compound that was
nontoxic and could have enormous use as a psychiatric aid. A decision
was made to make LSD available after the war to research institutes
and physicians as an experimental drug.

Hofmann was by no means a technocratic philistine. The amazing
mystical elements activated by this strange fungoid compound were of
particular interest to him, though he says he never imagined mere
recreational inebriation as a goal for users. He did, however,
anticipate self-experimentation by "writers, painters, musicians and
other intellectuals." By people, in other words, as respectably
educated folk used to say, "who possessed the background."

How could Hofmann, swathed in the cultural Gemutlichkeit of
Switzerland, understand that shortly -- in America in the '60s -- we
were all, all of us, going to be writers, painters, musicians and
other intellectuals?

Actually Hofmann soon had his eye on America and its discontents. He
associated "abuse" of LSD with what he called "materialism, alienation
from nature through industrialization and increasing urbanization,
lack of satisfaction . . . a mechanized, lifeless working world, ennui
and purposelessness in a wealthy, saturated society."

Hofmann was a wise man, however, and no more judgmental than any
scientist should be, and in his writings on the subject he treats the
hippie acid culture with grandfatherly moderation. Meeting Timothy
Leary, a figure who arguably turned his magic medicine into a social
threat, he remonstrated firmly with him, tried hard to see Leary's
ineffable good points and afterward called him "a charming personage."

As a highly valued executive researcher at Sandoz (now part of
Novartis), he traveled the world to study psychotropic compounds. With
his wife he went to Mexico to sample psychedelics at their practical
source, as administered by the curanderos and curanderas of the Sierra
Mazateca. It was Hofmann who succeeded in synthesizing psilocybin from
the "magic mushroom" of the Mazatecas. He also isolated a compound
similar to LSD from another Native American botanic sacramental, the
ololiuhqui vine. As a scientist he was fascinated by the ritual
practiced by the ancient Greeks at Eleusis each fall. These rites,
honoring the grain goddess Demeter, celebrated antiquity's most
profound mystery cult. Initiates described an intense life-changing
experience in the course of the nighttime ceremonies. Hofmann believed
that one of the components of the sacred kykeon, the potion
distributed to adepts, was a barley extract containing ergot.

Hofmann was close to many of the artists and thinkers who shared his
fascination with varieties of perception. He corresponded with Aldous
Huxley and was also a friend of the German mystic and novelist Ernst
Junger. He came to know prominent members of the American Beat
generation, including Allen Ginsberg, whom he met in California in
1977. Hofmann never approved of mass intoxication or drug use in
adolescence. Contrary to assertions, however, he did not regret his
discovery. No great scientist known to history can have been less
fanatical or more serene. He was always a humanist committed to the

Over his long life, Hofmann took LSD many times. He developed a
personal mysticism involving nature, for which he had a lifelong
passion. One thing this very tolerant man decried in the Western drive
for facile satisfaction was an alienation from the outdoors. The use
of LSD made him more and more conscious of it. In nature he saw "a
miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality." 
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