Psychedelic Psychiatry – LSD from Clinic to Campus by Erika Dyck
Originally published in 2008 ‘Psychedelic Psychiatry – LSD from Clinic to Campus’ by the historian Erika Dyck is an excellent, scholarly study into an important slice of LSD history. Mainly concerned with psychiatric LSD research in Canada, the text unpicks with some excellent research, some of the most interesting and important episodes in LSD’s short history, and goes a long way to re-establishing the hallucinogen, in its earliest form, as part of the medical discourse.
The central figure in Dyck’s history of psychiatric LSD research is Dr. Humphry Osmond (1917-2004). Osmond moved from London, England to Weyburn, Canada in October 1951. Soon after, he began researching the possible therapeutic application of hallucinogenic drugs, mainly mescaline and LSD, at the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital. The socio-political climate in Canada after the second world war was ripe for research. A social democratic government in Saskatchewan was pushing for radical experimentation in public policy, and the extra funding was attracting new researchers to the country; one of these areas was psychiatry, which was perfect for Osmond.
Osmond is probably most famous for his friendship with author Aldous Huxley (1894-1963). It was Osmond who, in 1953, supplied Huxley with the drug mescaline, and facilitated his hallucinogenic experience, from which the author wrote one of his most famous books The Doors of Perception (1954) and, later, Heaven and Hell (1956). The two books were later published in a single volume and that became a veritable sacred text for trippers the world over. Also, in a letter to Huxley, it was Osmond who first coined the term ‘psychedelic’, a word that became adopted, and warped from its original meaning (mind-manifesting), by the counterculture of the 1960s; a word that came to symbolise the very political struggle of the time. However, it was Osmond’s research partnership with Abram Hoffer (1917-2009) and John Smythies (1922-) that really helped drive the research.
“Hoffer and Osmond soon joined forces and began collaborating on their mutual research interests in biochemical experimentation. Osmond’s interest in mescaline led him to LSD, which he discovered produced similar reactions to those observed with mescaline. But LSD was a much more powerful drug. Early trials indicated that the drug might have the potential to help advance a theory of mental illness that promoted a biochemical explanation” (Dyck 26).
This approach to psychedelics described them as psychotomimetics (mimicking psychosis) and was one of two major human research areas with LSD, as originally proscribed by Sandoz when they first marketed the drug in 1947. The other being using LSD in psychotherapy as a key to accessing the unconscious. Initially, Osmond was exploring the relationship between mescaline and adrenaline, hypothesizing that an abnormality in adrenaline production could be the cause of psychosis. Later, LSD replaced mescaline as his primary research tool and he went about the business of collecting testimonials from individuals taking the drug. This, as with many other researches with the drug, was how LSD began to gain a reputation outside the clinical setting, as ‘healthy’ subjects began to report wide-ranging experiences, not necessarily in tune with psychotomimetic reading. Dyck lucidly narrates the process of choosing patients, the settings and the clinical practice, which gives the reader a real insight into what seems like an exciting and wonderfully experimental era. And, when coupled with the insights of the patients themselves, Dyck has produced a narrative that takes into account a variety of perspectives on the events.
Their research soon moved onto using LSD with alcoholics as they began to realise form patients experiences that LSD had therapeutic qualities. In this sense, the drug was breaking out of the psychosis model and, at the same time, increasing its mystique as no one model could be found to incorporate its range of effects, For alcoholics, and more significantly for the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) co-founder Bill Wilson, LSD offered something of a revelation. Wilson tried LSD several times and although he later distanced himself publically, he kept up a correspondence with Osmond and Hoffer, quietly supporting their research. There was one thing in particular that Dyck draws out of the relationship as being especially important. As part of the AA twelve step plan to recovery and sobriety, one had to give oneself up to a “higher power”; LSD, reported some individuals, was a highly spiritual experience. This, in small part, helped the researchers develop the ‘psychedelic model’.
Working closely with the Saskatchewan researchers, psychologist Duncan Blewit and physician Nick Chwelos published a comprehensive manual on LSD therapy, which listed common responses. These included: “A feeling of being at one with the universe”; “changes in perception of space and time”; and, “increased sensitivity to the feelings of others”. Hardly primary effects of a psychotic condition, however it goes to show the wide ranging subjective effects that any model had to deal with. The ‘psychedelic model’ was Osmond’s approach to this and it aimed at “incorporating empathy, spirituality, and patients’ perspectives into medical discourse” (Dyck 70) and thus extending the therapeutic facility beyond the Freudian models of other researchers. Also, during the 1950s Osmond and Hoffer were invited to take part in the Native American Church’s peyote ritual. Peyote is a cactus from which mescaline is taken, and the two researchers were ideally placed to give an objective view of the Church’s ritual in the face of increasing hostility from the authorities. It also had the effect of demonstrating the value of hallucinogens in a sacred context, which thus further fuelled their own research path.
In the end, as LSD spread out from the clinical setting onto university campuses and then into the wider population of North America, the media began to turn against the drug. From promising early news stories about the great possibility of LSD, they turned to horror stories, often with no factual basis, and the popular mood became a dichotomy between authority and counterculture, with LSD as a central dividing issue. The socio-political ramifications, stirred to the hilt by the media and furnished by unethical practice, went to bringing an end to psychiatric LSD research and, by the end of the 1960s, almost all research had ground to a halt globally. Dyck deals brilliantly with the ensuing political battling both within the profession and without, in a very clear-minded and level-headed manner, which generally sums up the tone of the book. In conclusion, Psychedelic Psychiatry is an excellent history and will, no doubt, be an important text for anyone interested in LSD history and the psychiatric use of the drug. And Dyck’s extremely engaging narrative goes a long way to furnishing further clues and answers about an era that still holds so much in the imagination.