BROOKE GLADSTONE: Looking back on his long life, in 1980 Albert Hofmann described a childhood ramble in the Swiss woods when all at once his surroundings were flooded with birdsong and an uncommonly clear light. He said there were no words to describe the experience, the sense of oneness and blissful security. But it convinced him of, quote, "the existence of a miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality that was hidden from everyday sight."
He wrote, "I was often troubled in those days, wondering if I would ever, as an adult, be able to communicate these experiences, whether I would have the chance to depict my visions in poetry and paintings. But knowing that I was not cut out to be a poet or artist, I assumed I would have to keep these experiences to myself."
Hofmann became a research chemist. In 1938, he first synthesized the compound we now know as LSD. Five years later, he stumbled upon its peculiar power. It was a day commemorated by many as Bicycle Day. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER – LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS]
Albert Hofmann died Tuesday at the age of 102. Last year on Bicycle Day we took a look back at the cultural impact of LSD. So here it is again.
Submitted for your consideration: an LSD anniversary which will begin with a clip from a vintage drugsploitation film. [CLIP] WOMAN: I first dropped acid when I was 18. I was over at these people's house one night. I was pretty jacked up on marijuana so I decided to try it, and I dropped it. I don't know what I was waiting for, a flash or a rush, or whatever. [CLIP CONTINUES IN BACKGROUND] BROOKE GLADSTONE: What she got was a conversation with the hotdog she'd bought at the snack stand down the street. [CLIP] WOMAN: And he started telling me that I couldn't eat him. [MUSIC/SOUND EFFECTS UP AND UNDER] And he had a wife and seven kids at home to support. And I stood there with this hotdog and asked Terry, do you know this hotdog is talking to me? [END OF CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Far out! I mean, bummer, dude. That poor woman was probably not among those celebrating Bicycle Day on Thursday, the anniversary of what is widely considered the first acid trip, by Dr. Albert Hofmann on April 19th, 1943, in Basel, Switzerland. He could not have foreseen the psychedelic revolution he would inspire that day 64 years ago when he ingested 250 micrograms of the compound and then rode his bicycle home from the lab.
Martin Lee, co-author of Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD, says that Hofmann is the antithesis of who and what we now associate with LSD. MARTIN LEE: Dr. Hofmann, who was working for Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland, in Basel, was looking for a circulatory stimulant. He was investigating a series of compounds, and he accidentally absorbed a tiny of bit of it through his fingertips. That was on April 16th. And he couldn't fathom how such a small amount that could have entered his system could have such profound and powerful effects.
So he undertook, on what is now known as Bicycle Day, April 19th, a self-experiment in his laboratory, and he ended up having the first intentional acid trip. But he ended up being so disoriented in his laboratory, he asked to go home.
So he rode on a bicycle, with the help of his assistant, who accompanied him, and said that when he was riding his bicycle he felt almost as if he was not moving at all, even though he was pedaling at a very fast pace. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Now, through the '40s and the '50s, LSD seemed to have a benign, even actively benevolent reputation. MARTIN LEE: Well, in the late '40s and early 1950s, LSD was used by scientists to study a potential cure for schizophrenia because it was thought that if you give a normal person LSD, they would become temporarily schizophrenic, and that if they can find an antidote for LSD, maybe that would apply for real schizophrenia. This was the thinking at the time.
And also, it provoked interest within the United States Army and the Central Intelligence Agency because of its powerful mind-bending effects, thinking that they could use it for their own purposes. BROOKE GLADSTONE: According to a Time Magazine article in 1954, the drug would, quote, "help the psychiatrist plan further treatment." Did anyone talk publicly about using it the way that, you know, we talk about Prozac today? MARTIN LEE: It was used as an aid for psychotherapy, actually, fairly widely. And some famous movie stars, like Cary Grant, really sang its praises. This is by the late 1950s. LSD became all the rage in Hollywood. And some people claimed they got more out of one LSD session than they got out of years of psychotherapy.
You know, LSD really does have a kind of a Jekyll and Hyde reputation. It could induce extremely frightening and scary experiences or very beatific experiences, and it's very difficult to predict what would happen. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So were the CIA and the Army in the 1950s seeking to exploit the Jekyll part of the drug or the Hyde part? MARTIN LEE: Well, it depends which one we're saying is the [LAUGHS] bad one. But the CIA thought they had a drug that would revolutionize the intelligence trade, believe it or not.
And what they found, the CIA and the Army, was that if the interrogator threatened to keep the subject in this crazy state forever, they would spill the beans. Now, how reliable the information would be, that's another matter. [BROOKE LAUGHS] But this was found to be a very effective torture technique. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the '60s, the drug culture began to emerge. Can you give us some major LSD cultural milestones? MARTIN LEE: Certainly. Music is obvious. You had the whole San Francisco sound - [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] - the acid rock from the Bay Area in the 1960s, groups like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. [JEFFERSON AIRPLANE’S GO ASK ALICE] But even beyond the Bay Area, think of the Beatles and their album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the wonderful song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
But beyond music, LSD has had an obvious impact in the arts, in theater – think of the musical, Hair – in poetry and in this whole computer culture. In the mid-1960s, you know, many of the folks who would become the pioneers -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you saying that Steve Jobs was tripping his head off as a kid? MARTIN LEE: He doesn't deny his involvement with these recreational drugs. And it wasn't just him. There were dozens of people like this. You know, there's no doubt that LSD helped to precipitate the cyber-revolution, if you will. And that's quite amazing when you think of the impact of that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think there's a common denominator for how all these various groups - the Army, the CIA, the counterculture, mental health patients - how they all view the drug? MARTIN LEE: Well, on the surface, it would seem that they had wildly divergent views, in that the CIA and the Army was trying to use LSD as a weapon, whereas people in the counterculture, people like Timothy Leary, were talking about it as a sacrament for a religious experience. TIMOTHY LEARY: It's as though God has taken you by the hand and led you through the door of sleep, through the door of symbol, through the door of senses, into the heart of His workshop. MARTIN LEE: The common denominator is that LSD is a drug that enhances possibility. It doesn't necessarily deliver; it doesn't necessarily help a person realize those possibilities. But it's helpful to kind of peel away the sensationalism on both sides of that debate. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ah, but in the 1970s, Hofmann wrote a book he titled, My Problem Child. MARTIN LEE: That's certainly how he was talking about LSD, because he felt his discovery had become adopted and corrupted by so many people who were using it without a responsible attitude that he felt was important that should go along with it.
But at his 100th birthday party he addressed 3,000 people that came to celebrate with him at a conference in Basel, Switzerland. These were young people, you know, who had dreadlocks - some of them had eight different-colored hair [LAUGHS], you know. And he was standing on the stage. He put his arms out to embrace the audience and he says, “When I look at you,” he says, “I don't think you're my problem child; I think you're my prodigy.” BROOKE GLADSTONE: Martin, thank you very much. MARTIN LEE: You're welcome. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Martin A. Lee is the co-author of Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD. Albert Hofmann died Tuesday at the age of 102.