LSD and the Divine Scientist by Albert Hofmann

lsd-and-the-divine-scientistOriginally published in 2011 under the title ‘Tun und Lassen: Essays, Gedaken und Gedichte,’ this Park Street Press edition of Albert Hofmann’s ‘LSD and the Divine Scientist: The Final Thoughts and Reflections of Albert Hofmann’ was released in 2013. Hofmann was a world-renowned scientist who first synthesized and discovered the psychedelic properties of LSD. The book includes a foreword by Christian Rätsch and an afterword by the visionary artist Alex Grey.

The story of Albert Hofmann’s discovery of d-Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is the most oft-repeated tale in the history and discourse of psychedelic culture. Having first synthesized the chemical from ergot in 1938 it was initially shelved after animal testing revealed very little efficacy in the drug. However, five years later, acting on a strange presentiment, Hofmann resynthesized the chemical and accidently consumed a small amount, discovering its psychoactive properties. The drug quickly underwent testing and was marketed by the pharmaceutical company Sandoz, whom Hofmann worked for, as a psychotomimetic and possible aid to psychotherapy. The resulting flurry of research during the 1950s, and the countercultural love affair with LSD during the 1960s, cemented Hofmann’s place in psychedelic history.

Along with LSD, Hofmann was also the first to synthesize psilocybin and psilocin, the psychoactive chemicals found in ‘magic mushrooms.’ No simple atheistic-reductionist scientist, Hofmann experienced a number of mystical nature experiences as a child, and these helped inform both his philosophy and his research over the course of his life. As an accident of research paths, and thanks to R. Gordon Wasson’s discovery of a sacred mushroom cult still existing in Mexico, all paths converged on a spiritually-embodied chemistry. LSD and the Divine Scientist: The Final Thought and Reflections of Albert Hofmann is a collection of essays, originally talks, by Hofmann that take into account many of these threads. A very articulate, concise and thought-provoking schema is brought to the fore and they paint a picture of a man who was at once a very dedicated, very spiritual and very peaceful individual. Indeed, the overall impression is that the sort of mystical materialism that pervades large elements of psychedelic culture generally is to be found in the particular of Hofmann’s beliefs and understandings.

The first essay, entitled Planning and Chance in Pharmaceutical Research, not only gives a very lucid description of the chemist role but also how their investigations can be driven by unexpected results and emerging research avenues. Ostensibly, while the role is strictly scientific in its methodology, Hofmann aims at describing how even the seemingly rigid scientific approach is also open to the unpredictable and thus new discovery: “during the clinical tests of substituted arylsulfonyl-alkyl ureas in the tolbutamide class of drugs, which have blood-sugar-lowering activity, researchers noticed that they also have chemotherapeutic qualities” (Hofmann 13). Indeed, this reflects Hofmann’s own discovery of LSD, which was not originally synthesized with psychoactive therapeutic properties in mind. In this sense the path of science is one of puzzling discoveries with aims. The second essay asks whether the truths and insights of natural science have therapeutic properties in themselves?

“Chemical and physical research has further established that the senders—the universe, the sun and the planets, the creations of this Earth, as well as our bodies—are built from the selfsame primordial material. Mystics also experience this scientific truth when they feel themselves to be physically unified with the universe” (Hofmann 53)

Pulling from both his own experiences, a sender-receiver model of information transference, and the basic truths of natural science, Hofmann essentially answers his question in the affirmative. Moreover, by checking the correspondence with nature mysticism he is developing the mystical materialism idea—an idea, in some respects, that he developed from his friend Aldous Huxley who was also very interested in universal mystical approaches and their therapeutic effects. Indeed, this is, arguably, the core of psychedelic therapy. The final two essays, in their own ways, begin to take this therapeutic observation to the next step. In Meditation and Perception: The Search for Happiness and Meaning, Hofmann explores some practicalities of elucidating the aims of such philosophic therapy and, in The Use of Psychedelics for the Great Transition, he looks at the role of psychedelics in easing the lives of terminally-ill patients—the practical social application of the therapeutic goals within the medico-arena.

The movement of the book from looking at scientific method, and its chance encounters, to the personable-social application of the method’s serendipitous results is neatly worked. It gives the whole book a full and touching theme that gives the reader a comfortable ride through some quite heady subjects. Translated from German by Annabel Moynihan, if the text tells us anything about the author, it tells us that he was able to take complicated ideas and communicate them simply and lucidly—ideas and thoughts that still resonate with great authority and insight.

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10 Responses

  1. Daniel Williams says:

    Nicely done, Rob! I think of dear Albert nearly every day…

    • PsypressUK says:

      Thanks Daniel. You met him, didn’t you? What were your impressions of the man?

      • Daniel Williams says:

        Yes, my wife and I spent a long afternoon with the Hofmanns in their lovely Swiss home back in 2003. He was 97 but still sharp. We discussed many things; LSD and its impact on his personal/professional life, of course; Timothy Leary (and we both felt that Leary was a net-negative); the future of mankind and how LSD will impact it, and many other subjects. We also drank some of his homemade plum schnapps, which for me, as a teetotaler, was interesting (I got a bit tipsy). My impression of Albert was that he was a man comfortable with how his life had progressed, happy to still be alive and hopeful that LSD, in time, would be recognized for what it truly is: an indispensible aid to the spiritual development of mankind. It was the best 4-5 hours of my life…

        We met again, briefly, in Basel at his 100th birthday party, and remained penpals until his passing. He was a sweet, gentle man, and I’m a better man for having known him. It was also in Basel where I first met Robert Forte. Nice to read here that he’s still rummaging around the psychedelic attics of the mind. Hey Robert: Let’s Save Democracy!

    • Hey Daniel and the others,
      Nice to see this!
      I was also at Uncle Albert’s 100th Birthday party in Basel where I showed the Terence Mckenna short movie ‘True Hallucinations’ which went on to become the full length feature movie ‘Cognition Factor’ in 2009.
      Last year I published a gonzo psychdelic autobiographical novel called; ‘Journey to Everywhere’ in which I document the LSD Symposium and my meeting with Uncle Albert in the speakers room before he addressed the conference. We probably saw each other there! Best, Schwann

  2. Robert Forte says:

    I knew Albert Hofmann since 1983 when I invited him to a conference I organized at Esalen with Stan Grof, at the beginning of my education about psychedelics, when I was a graduate student in religion at the University of Chicago. He treated me like his grandson for many years, grateful that I was making the effort to resurrect psychedelic use in a responsible, meta-psychiatric context. Over the many years that I had been involved in this pursuit I came to learn many things not included in the official, approved narrative about how these drugs emerged into the modern world. To be brief, there is very good reason to question whether the famous story about the bicycle ride is a true story, or that LSD was “discovered” by accident by Hofmann. A student of this subject would be wise to understand “The Mystery of St. Peter’s Snow,” which is the title of a paper soon to be published by scholar/historian Alan Piper, who will also be presenting at this year’s Breaking Convention, about the use of “profane illumination”, and the use of psychedelics by occult, fascist societies. Hank Alberelli’s A Terrible Mistake, a 700 page tome on MKULTRA, exposes Albert Hofmann as a CIA operative in the diabolical incident at Pont St. Esprit in which CIA dosed an entire village in France in 1951. Yet this information is neither countered nor mentioned in any of the myth making concerning LSD and the “leaders” of this “new” movement…many of whom have curious associations to either CIA or other intelligence agencies of the world’s secret societies…. In my view, as modern society becomes more and more totalitarian, psychedelic are promoted in effect, to “somatize” the youth with a faux spirituality, in the same manner that Huxley dimly predicted in Brave New World…..

    • PsypressUK says:

      Hi Robert,

      I’ll be sure to check out Alan Piper’s talk at Breaking Convention – thank you for the tip off. I’ll also be sure to read up a little more on the secret histories you speak of. I agree with you final comment – both the spiritual and psychological readings of psychedelics appear to have an efficacy that delivers a quietude, self-reflective but ultimately inactive behaviour pattern. Do you think this simply an effect of the psychedelics themselves, or just in the way their discourses are disseminated?


  3. Joost says:

    No link to where the book can be bought? Thanks for the review, by the way. Hadn’t heard about it until you posted it, and coincidentally almost together with another book on Hofmann by the guys at Gaia Media. Would love a review about that one also!

  4. BPA says:

    That bad people do bad things is no puzzle. Deeper into the human condition, a little more perplexing – and perhaps of the essence, I suggest – is a very different type question:

    Why Do (otherwise) Good People Stand By and Do Nothing – or worse, even Do Bad … sometimes Horrible … things?

    The narrative function cited by a poster above, and wretched duality of ‘official’ approval and disapproval – i.e., countercultural authoritarianism, emerging and intensifying in recent decades – is of the essence. If psychedelia is primarily becoming a proto-religious form, and culturally subversive as such – fine. The liturgy must begin with benediction, invocations of its saint’s names, reciting its founding stories with ever-mounting accolades of wonder, awe and glory. Followed by rebukes and denunciations of infidels and unbelievers – the disapproval function. Flip side of the straight and narrow divide. A means of exploring consciousness can be re-forged into a subversive weapon, aimed against the oppressor, the Establishment – the ‘dominator culture’ (boo, hiss – cue the catcalls) as ‘officially’ designated by highest of high priests of recent psychedelic pedigree.

    On the other hand, if a search for truth, meaning and reality – sanity and sense, not their ‘evil twins’ – is the purpose of experiencing altered states, maybe other considerations apply. If finding out what’s true, shedding light is of any interest, seems to me no cheering nor jeering need apply – especially in service to any personal agendas. The search for higher understanding may never be able to worship golden calves, or be brought into service of venerating charismatic icons, seeking attention and building followings inspired by psychedelic experience.

    I seem to observe a megaton of writing on psychedelia’s cultural wall. And the messages, decoded, bear tidings that issue a sobering alert – about wtf is going on in our milieu – within the counterculture, and without, equally. The prospects of psychedelics for our society, as an obvious issue of present and future interest, seems only the tip of a massive iceberg of scope and scale spanning the sociopolitical and psychospiritual, from the personal and individual realm, to general and collective. While the band plays on, and the party never ends …

  1. November 26, 2013

    […] Literary Review: ‘LSD and the Divine Scientist’ by Albert Hofmann […]

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