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By the time Leary was hired by Harvard in 1959, he had a national reputation as a gifted personality researcher, and yet even then—before his first shattering experience with psilocybin in Cuernavaca during the summer of 1960—Leary was feeling somewhat disenchanted with his field. A few years before, while working as director of psychiatric research at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, Leary and a colleague had conducted a clever experiment to assess the effectiveness of psychotherapy. A group of patients seeking psychiatric care were divided into two groups; one received the standard treatment of the time, the other (consisting of people on a waiting list) no treatment at all. After a year, one-third of all the subjects had improved, one-third had gotten worse, and one-third remained unchanged—regardless of which group they were in. Whether or not a subject received treatment made no difference whatsoever in the outcome. So what good was conventional psychotherapy? Psychology? Leary had begun to wonder.

Leary quickly established himself at Harvard’s Department of Social Relations as a dynamic and charismatic, if somewhat cynical, teacher. The handsome professor was a great talker, in the expansive Irish mode, and could charm the pants off anyone, especially women, for whom he was apparently catnip. Leary had always had a roguish, rebellious streak—he was court-martialed during his time at West Point for violating the honor code and expelled from the University of Alabama for spending the night in a women’s dorm—and Harvard-the-institution brought out rebellion in him. Leary would speak cynically of psychological research as a “game.” Herbert Kelman, a colleague in the department who later became Leary’s chief adversary, recalls the new professor as “personable” (Kelman helped him find his first house) but says, “I had misgivings about him from the beginning. He would often talk out of the top of his head about things he knew nothing about, like existentialism, and he was telling our students psychology was all a game. It seemed to me a bit cavalier and irresponsible.”

I met Kelman, now in his nineties, in the small, overstuffed apartment where he lives with his wife in an assisted-living facility in West Cambridge. Kelman displayed no rancor toward Leary yet evinced little respect for him either as a teacher or as a scientist; indeed, he believes Leary had become disenchanted with science well before psychedelics came into his life. In Kelman’s opinion, even before the psilocybin, “He was already halfway off the deep end.”

Leary’s introduction to psilocybin, poolside in Mexico during the summer of 1960, came three years after R. Gordon Wasson published his notorious Life magazine article about the “mushrooms that cause strange visions.” For Leary, the mushrooms were transformative. In an afternoon, his passion to understand the human mind had been reignited—indeed, had exploded.

“In four hours by the swimming pool in Cuernavaca I learned more about the mind, the brain, and its structures than I did in the preceding fifteen as a diligent psychologist,” he wrote later in Flashbacks, his 1983 memoir. “I learned that the brain is an underutilized biocomputer . . . I learned that normal consciousness is one drop in an ocean of intelligence. That consciousness and intelligence can be systematically expanded. That the brain can be reprogrammed.”

Leary returned from his journey with an irresistible urge to “rush back and tell everyone,” as he recalled in High Priest, his 1968 memoir. And then in a handful of sentences he slid into a prophetic voice, one in which the whole future trajectory of Timothy Leary could be foretold:

Listen! Wake up! You are God! You have the Divine plan engraved in cellular script within you. Listen! Take this sacrament! You’ll see! You’ll get the revelation! It will change your life!

But at least for the first year or two at Harvard, Leary went through the motions of doing science. Back in Cambridge that fall, he recruited Richard Alpert, a promising assistant professor who was heir to a railroad fortune, and, having secured the tacit approval of their department chair, David McClelland, the two launched the Harvard Psilocybin Project, operating out of a tiny broom closet of an office in the Department of Social Relations in a house at 5 Divinity Avenue. (I went looking for the house, but it has long since been razed and replaced by a sprawling, block-long brick science building.) Leary, ever the salesman, had convinced Harvard that the research he proposed to undertake was squarely in the tradition of William James, who in the early years of the century had also studied altered states of consciousness and mystical experience at Harvard. The university placed one condition on the research: Leary and Alpert could give the new drugs to graduate students, but not to undergraduates. Before long, an intriguingly titled new seminar showed up in the Harvard course listings:

Experimental Expansion of Consciousness

The literature describing internally and externally induced changes in awareness will be reviewed. The basic elements of mystical experiences will be studied cross-culturally. The members of the seminar will participate in experiences with consciousness expanding methods and a systematic analysis of attention will be paid to the problems of methodology in this area. This seminar will be limited to advanced graduate students. Admission by consent of the instructor.

“Experimental Expansion of Consciousness” proved to be extremely popular.

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