LSD: Completely Personal
speech delivered to the 1996 Worlds of Consciousness Conference
Dr. Albert Hofmann
One often asks oneself what roles planning and chance play in the realization of the most important events in our lives. With respect to a given event, this involves the question, just how much was destiny, how much free will? This question has preoccupied me again and again in relation to one of the most significant and consequential events in my life in relation to the discovery of LSD.
In order that this event might have occurred, the 'switches' must have been set in quite a specific direction at various points in my life. In deciding on my profession, I had to choose to become a chemist. This decision was not easy for me. I had already taken a Latin matricular exam, and therefore a career in the humanities stood out most prominently in the foreground. Moreover, an artistic career was tempting. In the end, however, it was a problem of theoretical knowledge which induced me to study chemistry, which was a great surprise to all who knew me.
Mystical experiences in childhood, in which Nature was altered in magical ways, had provoked questions concerning the essence of the external, material world, and chemistry was the scientific field which might afford insights into this.
A second, important decision on the fateful path to LSD was my choice of jobs. I chose the pharmaceutical-chemical research laboratories of the firm Sandoz ltd. in Basel. What attracted me to this job was the research program undertaken by the laboratory director, Professor Arthur Stoll, on the advice of the famous Nobel Prize winner Professor Richard Willstutter; namely, the isolation and purification of the active principles of well-known medicinal plants, and their chemical modification. Here chemical research impinged on the life of the plant world, which doubly fascinated me. A further, wholly decisive "switch-setting" took place, after I had already been occupied for some years with cardioactive medicinal plants like Digitalis and Mediterranean squill, when I applied myself to research on ergot I still quite distinctly recall the deep feeling of fortune in expectation of the adventure of discovery promised by this still little researched field of study. This expectation was later amply fulfilled. Important medicaments derived from that research, whose absence from the medicinal treasury today is unimaginable: Methergine,¨ the standard preparation for stanching of post- partum hemorrhage; Dihydergot, a circulatory stabilizing medicament; Hydergine, a geriatric medicine for treatment of infirmities of old age; and the psychopharmaka LSD and psilocybin. It is remarkable how clearly I remember the circumstances under which the idea of synthesizing the substance lysergic acid diethylamide came to me. At the time I did not take my midday meal in the company cafeteria, but instead remained in my laboratory during the midday break, and nourished myself on a slice of bread with honey and butter and a glass of milk, which was delivered fresh every morning from the Sandoz agricultural research farm. I had finished my delicious meal and was pacing back and forth, ruminating on my work. Suddenly there occurred to me the well-known circulatory stimulant Coramin, and the idea and possibility of synthesizing an analogous compound based on lysergic acid, which is the basic building block of ergot alkaloids. Chemically, Coramin is nicotinic acid diethylamide, and I analogously planned to synthesize lysergic acid diethylamide. The chemical-structural similarity of these two compounds led me to expect analogous pharmacological properties. With lysergic acid diethylamide I hoped to obtain a novel, improved circulatory stimulant. The first synthesis of Lysergsaure-diethylamid [or LSD, whose acronym derives from the initials of the German name, Trans.] is described in my laboratory notebook under the date 16 November 1938.1 This substance lysergic acid diethylamide, which has become world-famous under the designation LSD, was thus the product of rational planning. Chance first came into play later.
The novel compound came under routine pharmacological investigation in the biological-medicinal laboratory. In the research report, apart from a strong activity on the uterus and the evoking of a certain restlessness in the research animals during the narcosis, no properties were mentioned which might have pointed to a Coramin-like effect on circulation. The novel substance lysergic acid diethylamide appeared to be pharmacologically uninteresting, and underwent no further tests.
Yet five years later, once again during a creative midday break, the idea came to me in a strange way, again to synthesize lysergic acid diethylamide for further pharmacological testing. It was no more than a hunch! I liked the chemical structure of the substance - which led me to take this unusual step, since compounds as a rule were never handled again, when once discarded.
During the new repetition of the synthesis of lysergic acid diethylamide, a repetition, so to speak, grounded on a hunch, chance had the opportunity to come into play. At the conclusion of the synthesis, I was overtaken by a very weird state of consciousness, which today one might call "psychedelic." Although I was accustomed to scrupulously clean work, a trace of the substance must accidentally have entered my body, probably during the purification via recrystallization. In order to test this supposition, I made the first planned self-experiment with LSD three days later, on 19 April 1943. It was a horror trip. The details have already been described so many times, that they can be foregone here.
Considered from a personal perspective, the psychedelic effect of lysergic acid diethylamide would not have been discovered without the intervention of chance. Like many tens of thousands of substances annually synthesized and tested in pharmaceutical research, then found to be inactive, the compound might have disappeared into oblivion, and there would have been no history of LSD. However, considering the discovery of LSD in the context of other significant discoveries of our time in the medicinal and technical field, one might arrive at the notion that LSD did not come into the world accidentally, but was rather evoked in the scope of some higher plan. In the 1940s the tranquilizers were discovered, a sensation for psychiatry. These constitute the precise pharmacological antipodes of LSD. As indicated by their name, they tranquilize and cover-up psychic problems; while LSD reveals them, thus making them accessible to therapeutic treatment. At about the same time nuclear energy became technically usable and the atomic bomb was developed. In comparison to traditional energy sources and weapons, a new dimension of menace and destruction became accessible. This corresponded to the potency-enhancement realized in the field of psychopharmaka, something like 1:5000 or 1:10,000-fold, comparing mescaline to LSD.
One could make the assumption that this coincidence might not be accidental, but rather was brought on the scene by the "Spirit of the Age." From this perspective the discovery of LSD could hardly be an accident.
One might reflect on a further idea, that LSD might have been predestined by some higher power to arise precisely at the time when the predominance of materialism with all its consequences over the past 100 years was being understood. LSD as an enlightening psychopharmakon along the path to a new, spiritual age!
All of which could suggest that my decisions on arriving at the guiding "switch-points" which have led to LSD, were not really undertaken through exercise of free will, but rather steered by the subconscious, through which we are all connected with the universal, transpersonal consciousness.
But so much for the fateful aspect of LSD history, which has often engaged me mentally on to another chapter: LSD - completely personal. I should like to describe how, through LSD, I came directly or indirectly into personal relationship with two of the most important writers of our century, Aldous Huxley and Ernst Janger, and to explain their views on the significance of psychedelic drugs in our time.
I had read some of the world-famous books by the great English-American writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley; his futuristic vision Brave New World 2 and the social novel Point Counter Point.3 Especially meaningful for me were two books appearing in the 1950s, The Doors of Perception4 and Heaven and Hell,5 in which Huxley described his experiences with mescaline. Both books contain fundamental contemplations on the essence of visionary experience and on the meaning of this type of world-view in cultural history. Huxley saw the value of psychedelic drugs in offering the possibility of experiencing extraordinary states of consciousness to people who do not possess the talent for visionary experience, which is the province of mystics, saints and great artists. For him these drugs were keys to allow the opening of new doors of perception; chemical keys beside other, proven but laborious "door openers" like meditation, solitude, fasting, or certain yoga practices.6
I gained a deeper insight and meaningful interpretation of my own LSD experiences from these two books by Huxley. I was therefore joyously surprised to receive a telephone call in the laboratory one morning in August 1961: "This is Aldous Huxley." He was passing through Zurich with his wife. He invited me and my wife to lunch in the Hotel Sonnenberg.
A gentleman with a yellow Fresia in his buttonhole, an exalted, nobel appearance with a gentle radiance - thus I recall Aldous Huxley from this first meeting. The table conversation revolved mainly around the question of magic drugs. Both Huxley and his wife Laura also had had experiences with LSD and psilocybin. Huxley did not call either of these substances or mescaline "drugs," since "drug" in English usage, as likewise with Droge in German, possesses a pejorative sense, and because he felt it important semantically to distinguish this type of active substance from other drugs.
Huxley felt there was little sense in experiments with hallucinogens, as the psychedelica or entheogens were mostly known at the time, under laboratory conditions, since the surroundings were of crucial importance. He recommended to my wife, when the conversation turned to her Bundnerland mountain home, that she take LSD in an alpine meadow, then gaze into the blue corolla of a gentian flower, there to behold the wonder of creation.
As we were taking our leave, Huxley gave me, as a memento of this meeting, a tape of the lecture "Visionary Experience" which he had delivered the week before at a psychology conference in Copenhagen. In this lecture he discoursed on the essence and meaning of visionary experience and posited just such a world-view as a necessary supplement to the verbal and intellectual comprehension of reality.
During the following year a new, final book by Aldous Huxley appeared, the novel Island.7 In this book he described the attempt, on the utopian island Pala, to fuse science and technical civilization with eastern wisdom into a new culture, in which reason and mysticism are fruitfully united. A magical drug called the moksha-medicine, obtained from a mushroom (moksha in Sanskrit means dissolution, liberation), plays an important role in the life of the population of Pala. Its use is restricted to decisive periods of life. Young men on Pala employ it in initiatory rites; it is dispensed in the course of psychotherapeutic dialogue during life crises; and for the dying it facilitates the abandonment of this mortal coil and the passage to another being.
Huxley sent me a copy of this book with the handwritten entry: "To Albert Hofmann, the original discoverer of the moksha-medicine, from Aldous Huxley." In one of the letters which I received from him, dated 29 February 1962, there is a sentence that seems to comprise for me a particularly important admonition: "Essentially this is what must be developed: the art of giving out in love and intelligence what is taken in from vision and the experience of self-transcendence and solidarity with the universe"
In late summer 1963 I was frequently in the company of Aldous Huxley in Stockholm at the annual meeting of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences. The progress of the negotiations in sessions of the Academy was imprinted by the content and form of his proposals and contributions to discussions. In keeping with the theme on which the conference was based, "World Resources," Huxley made the proposal of taking into consideration the subject of "Human Resources," the investigation and unfolding of capabilities innate in human beings, but unused. A humankind with highly-developed spiritual capacities, with expanded consciousness of the comprehensive wonder of being, would have to be more capable of observing and recognizing also the biological and material bases for its existence on this Earth. The development and unfolding of the ability sensually to experience reality directly, undisguised by words and concepts, would be of evolutionary significance, above all for Occidental humankind with such hypertrophied rationality. Huxley regarded the psychedelic drugs as an aid to training in this direction.
The English psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who had coined the term psychedelic (mind-manifesting), was likewise taking part in the Congress, and supported Huxley with a report on meaningful possibilities of application of the psychedelica.
The symposium in Stockholm was my last meeting with Aldous Huxley. His appearance was already marked by his fatal disease, but his spiritual radiance remained undiminished. Aldous Huxley died on the 22nd of November 1963, the same day President Kennedy was assassinated. I received from Mrs. Laura Huxley a copy of her letter to Julian Huxley, in which she reported to her brother-in-law on the final day of her husband's life. The physicians had prepared her for a dramatic end, since in cancer of the esophagus, the terminal phase is usually accompanied by spasms and episodes of suffocation. He expired peacefully and quietly, however.
In the morning, when he was already so weak that he could no longer speak, he had written on a sheet of paper: "LSD - try it - intramuscular - 100 mmg." Mrs. Huxley understood what he meant by this, and gave him the desired injection - she administered him the moksha-medicine. Mrs. Huxley also sent me a copy of this sheet of paper with the final handwriting expressing the last wish of this great man. Huxley had made personal use of what he had described in Island, application of the moksha-medicine as an aid to the great transition. His fervent mission on behalf of psychedelic drugs came to be resented, even by the majority of his friends and readers. Some say it cost him the Nobel Prize.
So much for Aldous Huxley; now for my relations with Ernst Jange! I read my first book by this author, his diary from the First World War, In Stahlgewittern,8 as required reading in officer's school at the end of the 1920s. The second book by this author, which I acquired later, Das Abenteuerliche Herz,9 was a great surprise for me. How could the same author, who had described with thrilling, naked reality the horror of modern warfare in In Stahlgewittern, open the eyes of the reader with his prose, to the enchantment of simple things and the magic of everyday events? I still frequently pick up this book even after 50 years. Therein are descriptions of flowers, of animals, of dreams, of solitary walks; even thoughts on chance, on fortune, on colors and other themes which have a direct relationship to our personal lives. Here our eyes, which have become dulled by everyday habit, are again fully opened, and the omnipresent wonder, that is, the inexplicable, is made manifest in all its blessed, but sometimes even terrifying significance.
This reading often puts me in the mood to reflect on mystical experiences in childhood and on experiences with LSD inebriation. Jange's literary work has become a constant, spiritual companion in my life.
My personal relationship with Ernst Janger derived from a package of provisions such as one could send to the needy population of Germany after the war. The acknowledgement in July 1947 of one such package constituted the commencement of a correspondence continuing to this day.
At first the topic of this was not drugs. In order to explain how LSD came into play, I must speak of my first self-experiments with this substance. Shortly after my first planned self-experiment with LSD in April 1943, which led to the discovery of its fantastic psychic activity, the first clinical investigations with LSD on voluntary subjects were conducted by coworkers in the medicinal-biological department [of Sandoz, Trans.]. The frequently multi-year-long toxicological tests which today must precede the investigation of a substance in human beings were foregone. After all, I had already withstood quite a strong dose without damage. Doses employed here corresponded to only a fifth or a tenth of the quantity employed in my pioneering experiment, that is, to 0.05 or 0.025 milligrams. Understandably I myself participated in this research, which was conducted between work in the laboratory. Thus I experienced quite drastically, what a crucial meaning the external setting, the environment, had for psychedelic experiments. In alterations of consciousness induced by LSD I experienced directly the coldness and unpleasantness of the technical world surrounding me, and my colleagues in their white laboratory coats appeared to pursue a meaningless occupation; the apparatus and equipment had a diabolical aspect, like little monsters from the pictures of Hieronymus Bosch. Thereby an other, strange, dream-like world intruded upon me from within. The interruptions for the psychological tests, with which we sought to give such research a scientific character, were perceived as downright tormenting. I realized that one completely missed the meaning and essence of psychedelic experiences in such an external setting.
I longed further to pursue the investigation of the properties of LSD in a musical atmosphere, in lovely surroundings and in stimulating company. I thought at once of Ernst Janger. From our correspondence I knew that he had already experimented with mescaline. He immediately agreed to my suggestion that we conduct an LSD experiment together.
The great adventure took place at the beginning of February 1951. In order to have medical assistance at hand in the event it were needed, I asked my friend and colleague, the pharmacologist Professor Heribert Konzett, to participate in our undertaking. The trip took place at ten o'clock in the morning in the living room of the house we had at the time in Bottmingen near Basel.
Since the reaction of such a highly sensitive man as Ernst Janger was not predictable, a low dose was employed as a precautionary measure for this first experiment, only 0.05 milligrams. The experiment thus did not lead into great depths.
The initial phase was characterized by an intensification of aesthetic experience. The red-violet roses which adorned the room, adopted an undreamed of luminous power and radiated in portentous splendor. The concerto for flute and harp by Mozart was perceived in all its celestial glory as heavenly music. In mutual astonishment we beheld the smoky haze which arose with the ease of thought from a Japanese incense stick.
As the inebriation became deeper and the conversation lapsed, fantastic reveries overtook us, as we lounged with closed eyes in our armchairs. Janger enjoyed the colored splendor of Oriental pictures; I was on a voyage with Berber tribes in North Africa, saw parti-colored caravans and lush oases. Konzett, whose features seemed transfigured Buddha-like, experienced a breath of timelessness, freedom from the past and the future, the blessing of being completely in the here and now.
This excursion was marked by the commonality and parallelness of our experiences, which we all perceived as deeply blessed. We had all three approached the portal to a mystical state of being; but the door had not opened. The dose selected had been too low. Misunderstanding this reason, Ernst Janger, who had been thrust into deeper domains with a high dose of mescaline, opined that: "Compared with the tiger mescaline, your LSD is really only a house cat." He revised this opinion after further experiences with higher doses of LSD. The above-mentioned spectacle with the incense stick has been treated in a literary fashion by Janger in his story Besuch auf Godenholm,10 in which he also plays with deeper experiences of drug inebriation. During the following years, I visited Ernst Janger often in Wilflingen, whence he had moved from Ravensburg, or we met in Switzerland, at my home in Bottmingen or in Bundnerland. Our relationship became closer through the shared LSD experience. In our conversations and correspondence, drugs and questions connected with them formed a main theme, without at first having proceeded again to practical experimentation.
Here I should like to cite two short extracts from our correspondence of that time. In my letter of 16 December 1961 I had allowed: A further disquieting thought which follows from the ability to influence the highest spiritual functions (consciousness) with minimal traces of a substance, involves free will. Highly potent psychotropic substances like LSD and psilocybin possess in their chemical structures a very close relationship to natural bodily substances which occur in the brain and play an important role in the regulation of its functions. It is thus thinkable, that through some such disturbance in metabolism a compound of the type of LSD or psilocybin is formed in place of a normal neurotransmitter, which can alter and determine the character, the personality, its worldview and its actions. A trace of a substance, whose occurrence or non-occurrence in our bodies we cannot control with our wills, is capable of determining our fate. Such biochemical considerations might have led to the sentence written by Gottfried Benn in his essay Provoziertes Leben:11 "God is a substance, a drug!" Standing out above all in the reply from Ernst Janger, in his letter of 27 December 1961, is: "insinuates that we are beginning to develop procedures in biology, just like those in the field of physics, that can no longer be conceived of as progress in the established sense, but which rather intervene in evolution and lead beyond the development of the species" I suspect that this is a new era, that begins to work on the evolution of types. Our science with its theories and inventions is thereby not the cause, but rather one of the consequences of evolution! Wine has already altered much, has brought with it new gods and a new humanity. But wine stands in relation to the new substances like LSD, as classical to modern physics. These substances should be tried only in small groups. I cannot agree with the idea of Huxley's, that hereby the masses can be given possibilities for transcendence. This does not involve comforting fictions, but rather realities, if we take the matter seriously, and few contacts suffice to lay roads and connections." Janger here advocates the opinion that a new consciousness cannot be expanded through mass consumption of psychedelica, this must rather happen to an elite. We have since complemented such theoretical discussions on magical drugs with practical experiments. One such, which served for the comparison of LSD with psilocybin, took place in the spring of 1962. The following session happened in the Janger' house, in the erstwhile forester's home of the Stauffenberg's castle in Wilflingen.
Besides my above-mentioned friend, the pharmacologist Heribert Konzett, the Islamic scholar Rudolf Gelpke likewise took part in this psilocybin symposium. Gelpke had already made experiments with LSD and psilocybin obtained directly from Sandoz, which have been described under the title On Travels in the Universe of the Soul.12
It was mentioned in the ancient chronicles how the Aztecs drank cacahuatl or chocolate before they ate teonanacatl. In harmony with this Mrs. Liselotte Janger likewise served us hot chocolate. Then she abandoned the four psychonauts13 to their fate.
We were gathered in a massive living room with a dark wooden floor, white tile stove and period furniture. On the walls hung old French engravings, on the table stood a magnificent bouquet of tulips. Janger wore a long, broad, dark-blue-striped kaftan-like garment which he had brought from Egypt; Konzett was resplendent in a parti-colored Mandarin gown; Gelpke and I had put on housecoats. The everyday should also be set aside even in the external sense. Shortly before sundown we took the drug, not the mushrooms but rather their active principle, 20 mg of psilocybin each. This corresponded to some two-thirds of the very strong dose which the famous curandera Maria Sabina was accustomed to take in the form of Psilocybe mushrooms.
After an hour I still felt only a slight effect, while my fellows were already deeply into the trip. I had the hope that in the mushroom inebriation it would be possible for me to allow again to become vivid certain images from moments in my childhood, which remained with me as blessed events in my memory: the meadow of flowers lightly stirred by the early summer wind; the rosebush after the thunderstorm in the evening light; or the blue irises over the vineyard wall. However I did not succeed with this willfully directed imagination. When the mushroom principle finally began to work, in place of these luminous images from my home country, weird scenery emerged. Half-stunned I sank ever deeper, passed through moribund cities with a Mexican character, of exotic, though deathly splendor. Terrified, I sought to hold myself on the surfaces, to concentrate consciously on the exterior world. I succeeded in this once in a while. Then I saw Janger colossal, pacing back and forth across the room; an enormous, mighty magician. Konzett in his silky, glistening house coat appeared to me to be a dangerous Chinese clown. Even Gelpke seemed eerie to me, long, thin, mysterious! The deeper I sank into the inebriation, the stranger everything became. The cities I traversed when I closed my eyes lay in a morbid light, weird, cold, senseless, empty of humanity. When I opened my eyes and sought to fasten myself onto the external world, even the surroundings seemed to me to be senseless, spectral. The total void threatened to plunge me into absolute nothingness. I remember how I grasped ahold of Gelpke's arm and held him to me when he passed by my chair, in order not to sink into dark nothingness. Fear of death seized me, and an endless yearning to return to the living creation, to the reality of the human world.
At last I came back to the room. I saw and heard the great magician lecture uninterruptedly with a loud voice, reporting on Schopenhauer, Kant, Hegel and the old Ga, the little mother. Gelpke and Konzett were already back on the Earth, on which I again set foot wearily.
It was past midnight, when we sat together at the table which the woman of the house had set on the upper floor. We celebrated our return with a sumptuous repast and Mozart's music. The conversation about our experiences lasted well into the morning.
The above-described research protocol was included in my LSD book, LSD - My Problem Child,14 published by Klett-Cotta in 1979 and reprinted in 1993, as a 50th anniversary celebration, in a DTV pocket book. Ernst Janger has described this symposium from his vantage point in his 1970 Klett book, Annaherunge - Drogen und Rausch.15 The mushroom substance had conducted the four of us, not to the luminous heights, but to deeper regions.
Both are part of our existence. Only when we are conversant with both, heaven and hell, is our life full and rich; and it is fuller and richer the more deeply we experience both. The psychedelic experience can lead us to the deepest depths and the highest heights, to the boundaries of that which humankind is capable of experiencing. Janger gave his book on drugs and inebriation the title Approaches, approaches even to these boundaries, and he has also described himself as a "boundary walker" [Grenzganger].16 He has repeatedly approached both boundaries: proximity to death in battle in the hell of modern warfare, and the ecstasy of the most exalted delight and love in the perception of the wonder and the beauty of creation.
In conclusion, just a small anecdote that connects me with Ernst Janger and LSD. Janger told me that a stranger once called him in the middle of the night and told him that now he finally knew what LSD meant. LSD means: love seeks you [Liebe sucht dich].
References and Translator's Notes
Return to the MAPS Home Page
MAPS is a non-profit research and educational organization.
Your support makes a difference.