If you get migraines, you’ve probably heard of the drug ergotamine. For centuries, doctors have used it as a curative for intense headaches. It acts as an aid to neurotransmitters, helping to constrict blood flow and slowing down the reactions that make up migraines. It’s terribly useful.
It also affects the dopamine receptors, which is where things get interesting (unless you’re a neurologist, in which case, things were already interesting).
(That’s the end of the medicine lesson.)
On November 16, 1938, Albert Hoffmann, a Swiss chemist, was playing around with this stuff, looking for ways to improve it, and he came up with something he called Lyserg-Säure-Diäthylamid, or Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. It was another five years before he realized its psychedelic properties, through accidentally dosing himself.
(Think about that. Imagine being the first person to ever drop acid! I know, right? I mean, like, I know, right?)
Of course, the Cold War-era CIA thought LSD would be a good tool to help with interrogations or mind control experiments, and so they dosed a ton of people without telling them, which I need not tell you is extremely bad karma. Seriously, never do that. Also, you may get new truths out of your interrogation subjects by dosing them with acid, but those truths are going to involve purple unicorns, and the everlasting healing power of moonbeams, and how hamsters can read your thoughts, man, I swear it.
The CIA eventually figured this out, but by then, word was out that this new chemical was… rather fun in certain dosages.
Which is where Timothy Leary comes in. A psychologist at Harvard, he experimented with LSD & psychedelics as recreational & self-discovery tools, which kick-started what we now think of as a crucial piece of the 1960s counterculture movement.
This is the part you might know. Art got crazy. Music went from I Wanna Hold Your Hand to Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies in like two years.
And Ken Kesey took full advantage. Although best known for his semi-autobiographical novel, One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which later became a Best Picture Oscar winning film, for most of the 1960s he led a small group called the Merry Pranksters.
That group included other writers, most notably Jack Kerouac & his buddy Neil Cassady, and also many of the people who eventually became the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, both of whom formed and started playing at parties in San Francisco as all this stuff was happening. Kesey procured a bus, which he named “Further,” did up in full psychedelic colors, and drove across the country with everyone in tow, spreading the gospel of groovy peace and love.
At that point, LSD was being delivered to people via bowls full of dosed punch, which Tom Wolfe (who was not there to recall it first hand, curiously) memorialized in the book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. And by the time they finally made LSD possession illegal, it was late 1968, long after the genie had been let out of the bottle. Acid wasn’t easy to make, but you could learn how to do it without a PhD in nuclear physics, and now, psychedelics are part of the chemical amusement landscape, and the inspiration for all kinds of crazy art and new ideas. I’m not saying you should do them, but I am saying at some point, you enjoyed the work of someone who did.
And for that, thanks, Albert Hofmann. (Thofmann.)