Early Experiments with LSD

An LSD blotter depicting Albert Hoffman's first trip. Photo by YttriumOx
An LSD blotter depicting Albert Hoffman’s first trip.
Photo by YttriumOx

In its early days, LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide) was exclusive to labs. In fact, many of the early experiments were by doctors themselves, not patients. It wasn’t until 1966 that LSD became illegal in California (23 years after its psychedelic properties had been discovered), so there were many years of research before then. Now there are some interesting stories from the early days of LSD experimentation…

Right away, LSD was believed to have therapeutic properties. This led to many early experiments being with mental patients (with varying levels of disability). In one 1952 study, some patients were found to have improvements, others did not. There certainly were some interesting experiences though:

He the complained that the drug had transformed him into a “television set,” because the paresthesias in his face and extremities seemed identical with the ripples and fadeout of the television screen. He believed that through this drug one could control others by send out impulses that would be picked up by whoever took the drug. Subject was unaware of the bizarre nature of this idea.

"Jimmy Jet and His TV Set" From Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends"
“Jimmy Jet and His TV Set”
From Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends”

The final result for this study was that it may not be better than other therapeutic techniques, but it does allow for insights into unconscious processes. But not all the patients simply had bizarre encounters or ideas. One suicidal patient (who had complained “life was no longer worth living”), had not seen improvement after 7 weeks of hospitalization. Following an LSD trial, this success was recorded:

After one week he remarked that he was feeling better than he had in months. He became less seclusive and socialized readily.

There were increased adaptivity, a mood upswing, and increased drive. He was optimistic about his recovery, remarking, “I don’t know what you did but it was wonderful.” He was discharged as recovered, 2 months after onset of LSD therapy.

But the treatment most certainly did not work on all patients. Another 1952 study determined that perhaps certain mental disorders carried the same chemical imbalance that LSD created (as schizophrenic and manic states were often observed). This would mean that while the application of LSD worsen the condition, it could also provide doctors an insight into what the mental condition is like on the inside.

Outsider art made by a Thomas Zapata who has paranoid schizophrenia
Outsider art made by Thomas Zapata who has paranoid schizophrenia

Some wondered if it could induce a mental condition for the betterment of a patient. Delirium Tremens is a set of symptoms caused by sudden alcohol withdrawal. That very same year of 1952, Dr. H Osmond and Dr. A Hoffer noticed that the hallucinations brought on by LSD may be similar to Delirium Tremens. From Dr. Hoffer:

It occurred to us that LSD might be used to produce models of dt’s. Many alcoholics ascribed the beginning of their recovery to “hitting bottom,” and often “hitting bottom” meant having had a particularly memorable attack of dt’s. We thought that LSD could be used this way with no risk to the patient

While the LSD experience turned out to be very different, it was still fairly successful as a treatment. They treated near 1000 alcoholics in only a few years, finding that about 50 per cent were able to reduce or entirely remove alcohol from their lives. Patients had found insight into why they had drinking problems in the first place through psychedelic experiences. Of course, at the time, the term “psychedelic” had not been coined. Dr. Osmond coined this term to describe what he observed during these experiments!

Illustration of a man suffering from delirium tremens on his deathbed Image from the Wellcome Library
Illustration of a man suffering from delirium tremens on his deathbed
Image from the Wellcome Library

The possible therapeutic abilities of LSD were not contained for long. Outside the scientific world, personal experimentation also happened and became commonplace. Cary Grant was one of these personal experimenters, and commented in an interview with the National Police Gazette:

Each of us has different procedures and methods, but that is always what we are looking for. I honestly think that by means of LSD I got to know myself better, my possibilities and my limits; and as a result, greater happiness.

Although it began as a promising therapeutic tool, it soon spread amongst younger generations as a party drug. It would be this popularity in the mainstream that led LSD to its eventual outlaw.

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