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CHAPTER ONE A Renaissance IF THE START of the modern renaissance of psychedelic research can be dated with any precision, one good place to do it would be the year 2006. Not that this was obvious to many people at the time. There was no law passed or regulation lifted or discovery announced to mark the historical shift. But as three unrelated events unfolded during the course of that year—the first in Basel, Switzerland, the second in Washington, D.C., and the third in Baltimore, Maryland—sensitive ears could make out the sound of ice beginning to crack.

The first event, which looked back but also forward like a kind of historical hinge, was the centennial of the birth of Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who, in 1943, accidentally found that he had discovered (five years earlier) the psychoactive molecule that came to be known as LSD. This was an unusual centennial in that the man being feted was very much in attendance. Entering his second century, Hofmann appeared in remarkably good shape, physically spry and mentally sharp, and he was able to take an active part in the festivities, which included a birthday ceremony followed by a three-day symposium. The symposium’s opening ceremony was on January 13, two days after Hofmann’s 100th birthday (he would live to be 102). Two thousand people packed the hall at the Basel Congress Center, rising to applaud as a stooped stick of a man in a dark suit and a necktie, barely five feet tall, slowly crossed the stage and took his seat.

Two hundred journalists from around the world were in attendance, along with more than a thousand healers, seekers, mystics, psychiatrists, pharmacologists, consciousness researchers, and neuroscientists, most of them people whose lives had been profoundly altered by the remarkable molecule that this man had derived from a fungus half a century before. They had come to celebrate him and what his friend the Swiss poet and physician Walter Vogt called “the only joyous invention of the twentieth century.” Among the people in the hall, this did not qualify as hyperbole. According to one of the American scientists in attendance, many had come “to worship” Albert Hofmann, and indeed the event bore many of the hallmarks of a religious observance.

Although virtually every person in that hall knew the story of LSD’s discovery by heart, Hofmann was asked to recite the creation myth one more time. (He tells the story, memorably, in his 1979 memoir, LSD, My Problem Child.) As a young chemist working in a unit of Sandoz Laboratories charged with isolating the compounds in medicinal plants to find new drugs, Hofmann had been tasked with synthesizing, one by one, the molecules in the alkaloids produced by ergot. Ergot is a fungus that can infect grain, often rye, occasionally causing those who consume bread made from it to appear mad or possessed. (One theory of the Salem witch trials blames ergot poisoning for the behavior of the women accused.) But midwives had long used ergot to induce labor and stanch bleeding postpartum, so Sandoz was hoping to isolate a marketable drug from the fungus’s alkaloids. In the fall of 1938, Hofmann made the twenty-fifth molecule in this series, naming it lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25 for short. Preliminary testing of the compound on animals did not show much promise (they became restless, but that was about it), so the formula for LSD-25 was put on the shelf.

And there it remained for five years, until one April day in 1943, in the middle of the war, when Hofmann had “a peculiar presentiment” that LSD-25 deserved a second look. Here his account takes a slightly mystical turn. Normally, when a compound showing no promise was discarded, he explained, it was discarded for good. But Hofmann “liked the chemical structure of the LSD molecule,” and something about it told him that “this substance could possess properties other than those established in the first investigations.” Another mysterious anomaly occurred when he synthesized LSD-25 for the second time. Despite the meticulous precautions he always took when working with a substance as toxic as ergot, Hofmann must somehow have absorbed a bit of the chemical through his skin, because he “was interrupted in my work by unusual sensations.”

Hofmann went home, lay down on a couch, and “in a dreamlike state, with eyes closed . . . I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” Thus unfolds the world’s first LSD trip, in neutral Switzerland during the darkest days of World War II. It is also the only LSD trip ever taken that was entirely innocent of expectation.

Intrigued, Hofmann decided a few days later to conduct an experiment on himself—not an uncommon practice at the time. Proceeding with what he thought was extreme caution, he ingested 0.25 milligrams—a milligram is one-thousandth of a gram—of LSD dissolved in a glass of water. This would represent a minuscule dose of any other drug, but LSD, it turns out, is one of the most potent psychoactive compounds ever discovered, active at doses measured in micrograms—that is, one thousandth of a milligram. This surprising fact would soon inspire scientists to look for, and eventually find, the brain receptors and the endogenous chemical—serotonin—that activates them like a key in a lock, as a way to explain how such a small number of molecules could have such a profound effect on the mind. In this and other ways, Hofmann’s discovery helped to launch modern brain science in the 1950s.

Now unfolds the world’s first bad acid trip as Hofmann is plunged into what he is certain is irretrievable madness. He tells his lab assistant he needs to get home, and with the use of automobiles restricted during wartime, he somehow manages to pedal home by bicycle and lie down while his assistant summons the doctor. (Today LSD devotees celebrate “Bicycle Day” each year on April 19.) Hofmann describes how “familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated as if driven by an inner restlessness.” He experienced the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of his own ego. “A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa.” Hofmann became convinced he was going to be rendered permanently insane or might actually be dying. “My ego was suspended somewhere in space and I saw my body lying dead on the sofa.” When the doctor arrived and examined him, however, he found that all of Hofmann’s vital signs—heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing—were perfectly normal. The only indication something was amiss were his pupils, which were dilated in the extreme.

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