May 15, 2007
Peaking on the Prairies
By: Jake MacDonald
The Walrus published a fascinating article entitled"Peaking on the Prairies" that describes Dr. Humphrey Osmond's extensive psychedelic therapy research program in the 1950's.
PEAKING ON THE PRAIRIES
by Jake MacDonald
the June 2007 edition of The Walrus
Long before touching down in San Francisco, LSD was primed to become a
psychiatric wonder drug in Saskatoon.
All summers have their own record album, or at least they used to, and in
the record that changed everything was simply called The Doors. I first
it on a weekend in July when, with some friends, I drove to the Lake of the
Woods district east of Winnipeg, climbed into a cramped tin boat with about
people, blundered past nameless islands in the dark, and somehow found the
cottage that someone’s parents had entrusted to their son for the weekend.
“Just use your judgment, dear.” )
At least a hundred teenagers were crowded into the second storey of the big
boathouse, everyone drinking, and in one corner, a guy I recognized from
in Winnipeg was pretending to be a boulder while another guy was crawling
him pretending to be a river.
This was not a typical high school beer party; it was a Dionysian revel with
everyone lit up and barefoot girls dancing in slow motion to a record I had
never heard before.
When the record ended someone would turn it over and play it again, the same
record over and over, and more than anything else the hypnotic chanting of
Morrison’s baritone voice set the tone for the night: Your fingers weave
minarets /Speak in secret alphabets /I light another cigarette /Learn to
. . .
At daybreak, with a white-hot sunrise in the screens and unconscious people
lying about, I sat on the floor with a few others and listened to a guy I
from school telling stories about a drug called lsd. He was a little older
the rest of us, owned a 1967 Triumph Bonneville motorcycle, and was regarded
the sort of guy who knew what was cool and might even explain it to you.
have to try lsd,” he said. “It’s incredible. You look at that carpet, and
it’ll turn into an alligator.” I had never taken acid, but I liked the sound
As it turned out, purchasing lsd in Winnipeg wasn’t easy. But one Saturday
afternoon in late October, a friend and I went to a pool hall where we met a
fifteen-year-old nicknamed Ringo, who sold us two hits of Blue Microdot for
each. He explained that a trip lasted about eight hours.
With a midnight curfew this presented a problem, but I gobbled mine down
before dinner anyway.
At first, nothing happened and everything seemed normal.
My sisters dressed for their dates while my dad, with his trusty rye and
hand, adjusted the rabbit ears and settled into the La-Z-Boy to watch Hockey
Night in Canada. But when I went outside, I saw something remarkable. It
young tree, leafless now, emerging from the frozen ground and extending its
graceful, slender fingers up toward the moon. It was just one of those
fast-growing weed trees they plant in new suburbs, but it was one of the
beautiful things I had ever seen. And it wasn’t beautiful just because I
affected by lsd. It had an inherent beauty that I hadn’t noticed before.
That was many years ago, but I still remember that exquisite tree. Once
taken lsd, a tree never looks quite the same again.
The psychedelic properties of lsd ( lysergic acid diethylamide ) were
In 1943, while millions of people were busily slaughtering each other across
Europe, a young chemist named Albert Hofmann was doing research in neutral
His subject was ergot, a cereal-grain fungus with a formidable reputation.
medieval villages, ergot was known to cause a fearsome plague called St.
Anthony’s Fire. One of the derivatives of ergot that Hofmann experimented
was lysergic acid.
On April 16, 1943, Hofmann was brewing up a compound of lysergic acid when
accidentally came into contact with the substance, either by inhaling it or
spilling a drop on his skin. Shortly thereafter he began having sensations
bizarre and disturbing that he went home, where he sank into what he later
described as “a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by
extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed .
. I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary
shapes with [an] intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”
Intrigued by the experience, Hofmann waited three days and then
self-administered 0.25 milligrams of the same compound, lysergic acid
diethylamide. He considered it a safe dosage, small enough to have no
But lsd is potent, and he had given himself about five times what would
become a standard dose. This lsd trip was far more intense, with
hallucinations of witches and masks, followed by profound realizations of
power of the natural world.
In his memoir, written many years later, Hofmann recalled that the
taught him that people’s sense of reality was fragile. “What one commonly
as the reality, including the reality of one’s own individual person, by no
means signifies something fixed, but rather something that is ambiguous . .
there are many realities.” He believed that lsd might have potential as a
for psychiatric research, and in 1947 his employer, Sandoz, a Swiss
pharmaceutical company, began to bottle it under the trade name Delysid.
In 1952, Sandoz’s Montreal branch sent a package of lsd to Saskatchewan,
several psychiatrists hoped to experiment with the drug as a treatment for
Saskatchewan might seem like an odd place for research into mind-bending
but during this period the province was one of North America’s most dynamic
environments for research into mental illness.
This was due in part to the generous funding of public medicine by Tommy
and his ccf government, but also to the crusading work of Dr. Humphry
and Dr. Abram Hoffer.
Hoffer was the son of a Justice of the Peace and he had grown up watching
officers bringing people home, where his dad would conduct impromptu
If a guest were deemed a lunatic—one well-dressed and cordial gentlemen
insisted he was the Prince of Wales—Hoffer’s father would commit him to a
mental hospital, from which such patients rarely returned.
Back then, the treatment for schizophrenia ( a fairly standard diagnosis )
consisted mainly of inducing patients into comas using insulin, which caused
some to die. Electroconvulsive therapy was also a common treatment
technique— induced without anaesthetic, the convulsions were known to break patients’
Having seen first-hand the plight of these harmless individuals, Hoffer
interested in mental illness.
Later, when he became a doctor, he decided to study psychiatry because so
was known about mental disorders.
Hoffer’s English colleague, a British doctor named Humphry Osmond, had tried
get approval for using mescaline to treat schizophrenia, but was rebuffed so
emphatically by English medical authorities that he vowed to move as far
from the country as possible.
Saskatchewan, with its robust funding and wide-open ideology, seemed about
right. Osmond met Hoffer soon after he arrived in the province, and the two
psychiatrists formed an instant friendship. Both believed that the
ideas about mental illness were fundamentally wrong.
They hypothesized that schizophrenia was partly biochemical in origin.
knew lsd, like mescaline, was a psychomimetic ( madness-mimicking ) drug
produced psychological effects similar to schizophrenia. He reasoned that
they could learn how to construct psychosis with lsd, they might also learn
to deconstruct it with a chemical antidote.
Osmond and Hoffer launched their studies in 1952, with start-up funding from
Saskatchewan government. One of the first tests took place in the Munroe
of the Regina General Hospital. Believing that the experience would help
to understand their debilitated patients, a number of doctors and nurses at
hospital volunteered to take lsd. The volunteers prepared themselves for an
unpleasant day-long bout of hallucinations and paranoia, but the results
surprising. In written reports, most of the volunteers said their lsd
experience provided them with moments of insight that they found both deeply
affecting and difficult to describe.
Other psychiatrists from across the province soon joined the team, and
alcoholics volunteered to take lsd under their supervision. At the time,
psychiatrists considered alcoholism to be a character flaw—not a
disease—and it was widely believed that alcoholics seldom quit drinking
they hit rock bottom and experienced all the grisly side effects of alcohol
poisoning, such as the nightmarish hallucinations associated with delirium
Hoffer and Osmond speculated that lsd might reproduce the psychosis
with “rock bottom” but without the dangerous and sometimes fatal results
accompanied a serious bout of DTs.
Later, in 1955, psychiatrist Colin Smith conducted a further lsd experiment
University Hospital in Saskatoon, which had a remarkable effect on the
twenty-four alcoholics involved.
Follow-up surveys revealed that six reduced their drinking significantly,
jobs, and reconnected with friends and family.
Another six swore off alcohol altogether. Again, the psychiatrists were
surprised to learn that none of the volunteers had reported being
otherwise scared straight by their lsd experience. Most said that they had
gained new understandings of themselves and had had redemptive visions.
One described a beautiful spiral staircase leading upward and a mysterious
offering powerful insights into life.
Meanwhile, in the United States, government intelligence agents were
interested in psychotropic drugs.
The cia was particularly keen to find a chemical can opener for the brains
Nazi scientists had experimented with mescaline on prisoners at Dachau, and,
after the war, some of these scientists were brought to the US to work on
The cia had been tinkering with heroin and mescaline as interrogation aids,
with lsd the spy agency believed it had finally found its longed-for truth
Bundled together, these top secret experiments were funded under a program
called mkultra that ran from 1953 to 1964. Though most of the program’s
were destroyed in 1973 by order of then cia director Richard Helms, the US
Senate and the Rockefeller Commission later determined that mkultra involved
thousands of unwitting subjects at more than thirty universities and other
institutions in the US and Canada. The experiments generally tested the
efficacy of various mind-control tactics using radio waves and psychoactive
In one experiment, mkultra agents secretly dosed as many as 1,500 American
soldiers with lsd and made them perform simple drills and parade marches
peaking on acid.
In another experiment, labelled Operation Midnight Climax, agents rented an
apartment in San Francisco and hired prostitutes, who picked up citizens and
brought them back to the space.
The subjects consumed drinks spiked with lsd and tried to have sex while
filmed the proceedings through a one-way mirror.
In 1953, the cia held a three-day professional development workshop in a
retreat at Deep Creek Lodge in Maryland and dosed people with lsd without
knowledge. One of the group members, a biochemist named Frank Olson, had a
history of emotional difficulties, and shortly after the conference he
through a window and fell thirteen storeys to his death. ( Olson was
uncomfortable with his work in chemical weapons, and some believe he was
murdered by the cia. The controversy was serious enough that his body was
exhumed forty years later, after which the head of the medical forensic team
declared that the body showed injuries “rankly and starkly suggestive of
homicide.” ) Another infamous mkultra covert operative was the president of
Canadian Psychiatric Association, Dr. Donald Ewen Cameron, who used
electroconvulsion, paralytic drugs, and lsd to conduct brutal “psychic
experiments on unwitting subjects at McGill University’s Allan Memorial
A mid all this cloak-and-dagger experimentation, a mysterious cia operative
named Al Hubbard decamped from the United States and moved to Daymen Island,
near Vancouver, where he built a manor home on a sprawling twenty-four-acre
estate, complete with an aircraft hangar and a large yacht.
Hubbard was a mysterious figure.
With his shaven head and .45-calibre pistol, the self-appointed “Captain”
Hubbard—who had taken acid as part of his cia training—was a
barrel-chested and jovial eccentric who reputedly presided over his secluded
hideaway like a swell Colonel Kurtz. According to those who knew him,
was always vague about his specific duties with the cia. In any event, he
arrived in British Coumbia with several million dollars, broad connections
the US security establishment, and a very non-military enthusiasm for lsd.
Osmond met Hubbard through their mutual friend, Aldous Huxley. Osmond had
become acquainted with Huxley when they both lived in England and had
him with his first dose of mescaline, which the author used as inspiration
his book The Doors of Perception. ( Huxley got the title from William
and Jim Morrison later borrowed it for the name of his band. ) Huxley kept
touch with Osmond and in one of his letters suggested that Osmond contact
pal Hubbard. In 1953, Osmond and Hubbard met for lunch at the Royal
Yacht Club. Osmond later recalled, “Hubbard was a powerfully built man,
broad face and a firm handgrip.
He was also very genial, an excellent host.”
At Osmond’s invitation, Hubbard travelled to Saskatchewan, where he met
and observed the work of the two psychiatrists. It was Hubbard’s theory
lsd didn’t produce a “model psychosis” so much as a different way of seeing
world, one that offers us a clearer view of ourselves and our relationship
He said he wanted to introduce the top executives from Fortune 500 companies
lsd, and argued that humanity could be saved by psychedelic drugs. ( The
psychedelic was coined by Osmond in a letter to Huxley. ) Hubbard also
to start his own quasi-medical facility and in 1957 he linked up with
doctor J. Ross MacLean to open an lsd clinic in New Westminster.
The Hollywood Hospital was a stately mansion that had served for years as a
detox centre for Vancouver’s more affluent drunks.
It remained so, but Hubbard and MacLean also turned it into a walk-in lsd
boutique. Anyone with $500 was welcome.
Patients would check in, get a physical examination, fill out an mmpi
psychological profile, and disclose in writing their personal histories,
complete with “hang-ups.” After taking lsd, they retired to the “therapy
where plush sofas, a high-end sound system, and fanciful artwork encouraged
positive experience. Providing a degree of medical respectability to the
initiative, Hubbard and MacLean occasionally played therapist—but the
day-to-day therapy was handled by an itinerant adventurer named Frank Ogden.
Ogden, a barnstorming Ontario aviator with no training in psychiatric
had learned about the clinic from an article in Maclean’s magazine. He
of himself as an explorer and believed that the human mind was the ultimate
Ogden, who now lives in Vancouver, recalls that he dropped everything and
out to the clinic to see if he could get a job. “I told them I was well
qualified to work as a guide into ‘inner space’ because I’d flown flying
and survived helicopter crashes, and set a dangerous high-altitude record in
little single-engine Mooney. I told them adventure was my game.”
Ogden worked for free for a spell to prove himself and became the Hollywood
Hospital’s main therapist after Hubbard quit. “Over the next eight years, I
worked with more than 1,100 patients,” he says. “The majority arrived with
problems and left as better people.
It wasn’t always a pleasant experience for them, but nothing worthwhile is.
most difficult patients were psychiatrists and engineers.
They were rigid in their thinking and they often had a hard time.”
While the hospital was named after the abundant holly trees in the area, the
name was also appropriate, as it turned out, because many of the patients
celebrities—Cary Grant, Ethel Kennedy, and jazz crooner Andy Williams,
others. ( Williams signed up partly because of his marital problems.
He continues to perform, and says that the acid he took in Vancouver helped
understand that “the only things important to me were family, friends, and
Maybe that’s why I’m so cool.” ) Ogden says they had a lot of local
people too. “I can’t mention their names because they’re still alive.
But we had a lot of wealthy housewives from the British Properties who drank
much and were in sexless marriages.
I remember one lady was frigid.
I touched the back of her hand and she had an orgasm.
I saw her at a social event a few months later and she joked, ‘You’re not
to do that to me again, are you? ’ “
By 1959, Hubbard was getting impatient with MacLean. Hubbard believed that
should be available to everyone, rich and poor, while MacLean, who had
a big house on Southwest Marine Drive, preferred to treat the hospital as a
lucrative private clinic.
Hubbard decided to give up his share in the clinic and move to California,
he became a sort of Johnny Appleseed of psychedelia, giving free lsd to
from housewives to celebrities such as James Coburn, Stanley Kubrick, Ken
and the Grateful Dead. Hubbard also became acquainted with a Harvard
named Timothy Leary, who would do more than anyone else to promote the
non-medical use of lsd among young people.
With his love beads, boyish enthusiasm, and rugged good looks, Leary kicked
lsd campaign into high gear. Ecstatically stoned and surrounded by avid
female fans, Leary toured college campuses urging students to “turn on, tune
and drop out.” Abram Hoffer later wrote that he always feared lsd would
street drug and, thanks to what he described as “the irresponsibility of
Leary,” his fears were realized.
In 1966, Hoffer went to the University of California campus at Berkeley to
present a research paper on the clinical uses of lsd. He says he received a
Afterward, he watched Leary make a presentation—the Harvard prof was
“with wild abandon” by the students, even though Hoffer couldn’t understand
Leary was trying to say. Public health authorities were alarmed by the
and later that same year lsd was banned in California. By the end of 1967
— the same year the Doors’ first album was released—use of the drug was
in every state, even when supervised by legitimate researchers. Lawmakers
Canada followed suit, and lsd was soon prohibited by most countries in the
If you wanted to conduct your own experiments with lsd, you had to go
for someone like Ringo.
Psychiatrists and biochemists never figured out exactly what lsd does to the
human brain, and since the drug was banned there hasn’t been any research
It is believed that the compound is absorbed by the body and disappears in a
short period of time, but its effect on the human psyche can endure for many
hours and sometimes days. Obviously, the psyche is a complicated matter.
In layman’s terms, one might think of it as a structure, a rickety play fort
that arises from the mud of childhood and eventually becomes a proud
containing all our accomplishments, defeats, jealousies, ambitions, biases,
longings, and stored memories.
This is our hard-earned “identity,” and it becomes a sort of psychic
headquarters from which we interpret and evaluate the world. lsd functions
a chunk of plastic explosive attached to the main load-bearing post in our
underground garage. The chemical doesn’t need to stick around.
It only needs to cut one post and gravity does the rest.
What emerges from the smoke and dust of the collapsed psyche is a naked baby
— the same wide-eyed infant that looms enormous in the final scene of Stanley
Kubrick’s lsd-influenced film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Without the mediating
structure of identity, the world becomes a terrifyingly vivid place.
Music, colours, texture, taste—all suddenly regain the distracting power
we’ve spent so many years training ourselves to ignore. We ignore the world
that we can take care of business.
After all, how efficient would we be if we couldn’t step outside without
to stare in slack-jawed amazement at every tree?
Eating, too, would be an enormous problem.
After meeting up with my similarly dosed pal that October evening in
we walked to a large park, where we sat like fakirs in the darkness,
to the potent silence of the woods, listening to acorns occasionally falling
the leafy floor with a startling crash.
Eventually we decided it would be a good idea to get something to chow down
This turned out to be not so much a bad idea as a very complicated one.
lurid fluorescent lights, surrounded by strange people, it took enormous
concentration to deal with the simple fact that the world contained
bizarre as pizza, and that one was expected to eat it. Each bite seemed to
contain so much flavour that I sat walleyed for long minutes, trying to
the information contained in a morsel of pepperoni the size of an asterisk.
lsd seems to destroy the processing system by which we interpret everyday
It opens the doors, as Huxley would have it, but this can be both an
exhilarating and terrifying experience. It’s no fun listening to the
ignorance of our own opinions, suddenly realizing that so much of what we
thought to be true is in fact nonsense. This is the stuff of the “bad
and it’s such an integral part of the lsd experience that most experimenters
the drug only a few times.
During bad trips, our disgust with ourselves is projected outward, and the
can become a foul place. ( When Dr. Osmond took mescaline, he saw a child
turning into a pig. ) Nonetheless, something important is going on. After
psyche disintegrates, it necessarily rebuilds.
And the reintegrated psyche takes account of what it now knows and is
strengthened. “I don’t believe in the notion of the bad trip,” says Frank
Ogden. “lsd makes you face reality and deal with it.”
Odgen says he took lsd only three times when he was training to become a
therapist but, he says, “They were some of the most interesting and valuable
experiences of my life. I learned things from lsd, and it still keeps me
in my thinking.” Now a sharp-eyed and energetic eighty-six-year-old, Ogden
in his office and writing retreat a fanciful whale-shaped houseboat at the
Harbour marina in downtown Vancouver. He has fitted the interior with
cameras, communications equipment, and warp-speed computer processors.
himself “Dr. Tomorrow,” he travels the world giving talks about technology
Ogden believes that scientific research into lsd was terminated prematurely,
he would like to see bona fide researchers get legal access to the drug.
In March 2006, Dr. Ben Sessa, an Oxford psychiatrist, gave a speech to
England’s Royal College of Psychiatrists arguing that lsd’s potential
to medicine must be re-examined. It was the first time in thirty years the
institution considered the issue.
A pilot study is also being planned in Switzerland. lsd will be
several subjects suffering from anxiety associated with advanced-stage
and other life-threatening illnesses. “lsd was used safely and effectively
thousands of times in clinical settings,” Sessa says. “No one would ask
anaesthetists to forgo morphine use because heroin is a social evil. And
there’s no valid reason to ban lsd research.”
Erika Dyck, a medical historian with the University of Alberta, has
the most extensive academic research into the early days of lsd
and has spoken to some of Hoffer and Osmond’s former patients.
Her findings suggest that many are still extremely positive about the
experience. “They can’t say enough about how helpful it was,” she says.
triggered a psychological process that allowed them to see themselves.”
In January 2006, a large gathering of psychotherapists, medical doctors,
academics, and, of course, aging hippies met in Basel, Switzerland, for a
conference called lsd: Problem Child and Wonder Drug. The conference was
ostensibly held to discuss the scientific importance of the drug, but, as
as anything else, people convened to celebrate the hundredth birthday of
Hofmann, the man who first experimented with lsd over half a century ago.
Bent and frail, supported by crutches and a burly Swiss guardsman, Hofmann
still bright-eyed as he walked onto the stage to thunderous applause. In a
quiet voice, he told the audience he was concerned about the future of
“All of life’s energy comes to us from the sun, via photosynthesis and the
Our lives are becoming increasingly urbanized, and I believe lsd is a means
rebuilding our relationship to ourselves and to nature.”
It has been forty years since the so-called summer of love, and Aquarian
of basking in the sun and returning to the Garden of Eden, naked and
by the wonder of it all, seem quaint and dated. Today, even Jim Morrison
as corny as Rudy Vallee. But old apocalyptic visions are still in play.
still destroying the environment and, to paraphrase Albert Hofmann, we need
hang onto any tool that will help us to see that tree.
Jake Macdonald is an award-winning journalist and the author of 2005’s With
Boys: Field Notes on Being a Guy.
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