“It was serendipity. I was looking for something. I did not find what I was looking for. I found something else. That’s the meaning of serendipity.”
From the first issue of High Frontiers, the magazine that became MONDO 2000, a great flashback interview with Dr. Albert Hoffman, who discovered LSD
Dr. Albert Hofmann, Swiss chemist, and discoverer of LSD, was in America last summer to celebrate and promote his book, LSD – My Problem Child. While here, he stopped by Shared Visions, where he was interviewed by Will Nofke, before an appreciative audience. As Will said in his introduction of Dr. Hofmann, he is a radiant being. Well into his seventies, he has maintained the good-natured flexibility and sense of humor of an enlightened man.
Will Nofke: Dr. Hofmann, you’ve said that it’s necessary to be well-prepared to use the substance known as LSD, and it seems that your life prepared you for the discovery of this particular substance which has been such a catalyst in so many lives. I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the process of that discovery. What lead to it ?
Albert Hoffman: It’s my belief that I was really prepared for this work. As you know, I was not searching to find a psychoactive compound. When I prepared this lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD, I had planned to get an analeptic compound with a circulatory stimulant activity, a stimulant for the heart and breathing. It turned out to be a psychic stimulant, instead. We made this kind of discovery not by chance. It was serendipity. I was looking for something. I did not find what I was looking for. I found something else. That’s the definition of serendipity.
W.N. Seems to be the definition of life itself.
A.H. Yes, maybe. Do you know who coined this word ?
W.N. No. I don’t.
A.H.- That was Horace Walpole in 1756, I believe. He had just read this fairy tale about the 3 princes of Serendip. Serendip is the ancient name for Salem. This was the story of some princes who went out on an expedition. They were searching for something they had planned to find, but then they did not find what they were looking for. But because they were open-minded and curious, they found other things which were all useful. After having read that story, he coined the word Serendipity.
W.N.- Could you tell us a little bit about how your discovery took place, because it is quite unusual ?
A.H.- Yes. I prepared this compound for the first time in 1938 with the intention to get an analeptic. I gave it, in the normal way, to our pharmacological department at Sandoz. There, compounds are tested in animals, and in isolated organs, but we did not find any extraordinary activity of this compound. And very strangely, quite unusually for me, 5 years later, I should, just once more, prepare this compound and make it available to our pharmacologists, and ask them to do broader, more extended testing, because I just had a feeling that there could be something more in this compound.
W.N. You sensed something was there.
A.H. Yes. So, I just prepared this compound. I was working the afternoon of the 18th of April, ’43, and I was just at the final stage of this synthesis, which consists of the crystalization of a dilution in methanol, and the compound comes out in a pure state. I started to feel quite strange and I had a kind of daydream. I went out of the normal world, into a kind of other reality. I went home, laid down, and had a beautiful experience. Everything which I thought about, it was immediately before my eyes, just quite vivid and alive. Then these symptoms disappeared, and I thought, “Something has happened with me that is most unusual.” And I thought maybe I had used a solvent closely related to chloroform, which was known to be an intoxicant. I thought maybe the chloroform had caused this kind of inebriation, and I had reacted in such a strange way. The next day, I sniffed some of this compound (chloroform) and nothing happened. So, I thought that maybe some of this compound I had been working on, this diethylamide of lysergic acid, could have been the cause. I decided to get to the bottom of this problem and make a self-experiment with this compound. Being a cautious man, I started out with one-fourth of a milligram, which is unusually low, with the intention to increase, gradually, the amount. I then ingested this in the laboratory. Soon, after a half-an-hour, “Oh. That was the compound I had used. It came up very, very strong. It took me, and when I came home, I asked the laboratory assistant to accompany me. That was the famous bicycle ride. I rode the bicycle 6 kilometers, 4 miles home and, finally at home, I got into a very terrifying situation. All was so strange and I had the feeling maybe I have become insane now. Because I did not know if ever I would come back off this other reality, and that was very terrifying. At the climax of the experience, about 3 or 4 hours after I had ingested it, I had the feeling of being out of my body and I thought, “You may have died and you are now in another world, and you have made a big discovery, and now you cannot even enjoy it and use it, and you can never sell it to anybody, and you’ve left your family with 3 children.” It was really a terrible situation. But then, finally, I got the feeling that I would come back and then a beautiful, a joyful, a peaceful experience came and it was like a rebirth. After death, a rebirth. Then I enjoyed the stimulated fantasy, the array of colors and stimulated feeling of life, life coming again, and I was really happy, and it was a happiness which I had not experienced before. Finally, I slept, and the next morning I was a changed human being. I had the feeling I had died and been reborn. This was the beginning of my thinking about both these realities. Because I had left our everyday reality. I’d been in another reality, and that was the beginning of an insight into our world, which I never would have had without this experience.
W.N. It’s amazing, in all spiritual traditions, it seems that there’s that “Die before ye die,” that dying process and the rebirth. And it seems that LSD is that sort of calalyst, that can take one through that trip, that journey from this reality to another reality, and with proper guidance, you can go through it carefully and consciously. And I think one of the things that lead you to call your book, LSD – My Problem Child, is the fact that you did not envision, at that time, that it would ever be used as a recreational drug, as an inebriant.
A.H.- I never would have believed! (Audience laughter) This experience was so overwhelming and so deep that I thought it would always be used just to provoke a kind of religious experience, not just for pleasure. I immediately realized that this agent must be used cautiously, and with awe and respect, otherwise it could produce dangerous effects. That, I realized immediately. Then, in the 60s’, it became my problem child. The first 10, 15 years, it was used under controlled conditions, in psychiatry, in neurology, as a useful tool, and the first experiments in humans were made in the Sandoz laboratory, with volunteers. We used small doses and we made all kinds of tests under laboratory conditions. But then I had the feeling this is not the right setting, this laboratory, and we could get much more out of this compound in private conditions with friends, with music, and with proper conditions, and we had beautiful experiences. This was happening already in ’49. I knew how to handle these substances through the 50s’ and up into the ’60s. Then came the news from the United States that people jumped out of the window, stood in front of a running car, that they had made suicide. Then, it became a problem child. And, of course, what appeared in the newspapers, and in the magazines, and in the mass media were mainly the negative aspects. The management of our company was, of course, not very happy about this development. In Europe, we had no problem. They had no such accidents.
W.N. Was there broadscale lay-usage in Europe ?
A.H. Not so much. In any case, we had no accidents. People who used it, used it in an appropriate way.
W.N. Well, certainly in the United States, there were a number of people that were trying to serve as guides, and give the background that was necessary to have a safe trip.
A.H.- Yes I Yes! Yes! And I think, now, we never hear about any accidents with LSD. I think people who use it now, know it, and know how to use it in the right way.
W.N. I’m aware of the fact that when LSD was withdrawn from the marketplace, from availability for professional use, that any number of substitutes were attempted. All sorts of body therapies, psychoanalysis, all of the traditional things were repeated, somehow. Other substances that were not on the blacklist were tried, and I don’t know of any that succeeded. They all seem to have greater negative aspects than LSD does, used under proper circumstances.
A.H.- I would agree, with the exception of psilocybin, the mushroom constituent.
W.N.- Now there you have an organic substance.
A.H. In fact, LSD is almost organic. I’ll tell you the story. LSD belongs to the sacred drugs of Mexico, because of its constitution. Fifteen years after the discovery of LSD, I investigated the ololiuqui. That is a very ancient sacred drug of the Indians, and what did I find there? I found the lysergic acid amide. Even if you are not a chemist, you see it’s the same. Lysergic acid diethylamide, lysergic acid amide, nearly the same components of the active principles of ololiuqui. That means that LSD is nothing else than the small chemical modification of the sacred drug of Mexico. Therefore, I was right when I had the feeling that it was a sacramental drug right from the very beginning. That was even confirmed by its chemical constitution, by its chemical structure. Nobody believed it when I found this in morning glory seeds, and reported it for the first time, at Australia’s international conference on natural products, and told them that, “We have, in the laboratory, all kinds of lysergic acid derivatives.” They said, “You have missed something. It is impossible.” Because it is a kind of natural law that you can say that if such-and-such a compound is contained in this plant, and found in another plant, they are related botanically. What was quite unusual, unheard of, in fact, LSD is a derivative of a fungus, of the ergot fungus. And ololiuqui is a convolvulus plant, it is of the morning glory family, a flowering plant. It is quite of a different section of the plant kingdom. This has never been found before ! It is the absolute exception in chemotoxonomy, that you find the same chemical structures in a lower fungus and a higher plant. The others didn’t believe it, but LSD is the great exception in all of this. In professional readings of the botanical books, you see that this is the greatest exception that you find. So when I found these compounds, I didn’t believe it. I repeated the experiment 3 times before I published it. But it was finally confirmed. Now, it is accepted, of course.
W.N. You’ve mentioned peyote and mescaline, and the greatest difference, perhaps, is that LSD is, milligram for milligram, what, 5 to 10,000 times stronger ?
A.H. Yeah, yeah. You need a half-a-gram of mescaline, and you need maybe 0.1 to 0.05 milligrams only of LSD. It’s about 10,000 times more active, by weight.
W.N. Wouldn’t that make it much more difficult to gauge how much you should take ?
A.H.-Yes. It can be very difficult to tell the dosage. The dosage is important. And that is one thing which may have been the reason.. what caused the bad accidents. People did not get the right dosage and they did not get the right material. You need to be a professional to produce LSD. If you had lysergic acid that was available at the begining of the 60s’… now the restrictions are the same as LSD itself, but when you had pure lysergic acid, it was not too difficult to prepare, under normal conditions, LSD. But then, to prepare it in its stable form, you need to be an expert. It is very easily destroyed by oxygen, and by light. You have to protect it. At Sandoz, we prepared ampules with 100 micrograms, and these ampules were absolutely 100% free of oxygen, filled with nitrogen, so then it’s stable. But in this black market LSD, there you put it on a blot paper and you have a big surface, access to oxygen, and it is very soon destroyed. I have analyzed quite a lot of black market lsd, and very, very rarely have I really found LSD.
W.N. Tell me, during those first years after the discovery, I assume Sandoz was not particularly interested in marketing a transformative drug, a sacred drug. There must have been other uses that they saw for this substance
A.H.- Yes. It was intended to be used as an adjunct in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. That was the most important application. And this is one of the main characteristics of the LSD experience, that the patient could come out of his encapsulated ego, get out of his problems, that he can get better contact with his doctor, with his psychiatrist, and then, enhanced adjustability. He can be deeply influenced. Another effect that was important as an adjunct to psychoanalysis was that, under certain conditions, repressed or forgotten experiences come out of the subconscious and become conscious again. And that is just what is attained in psychoanalysis… to become conscious of traumatic experiences which have been repressed or forgotten. As soon as they are conscious, you can work with them. LSD was not intended as a medicament. It was intended as an adjunct, a help, an aid in psychoanalysis. But the healing process must come by the spirit of the psychiatrist. This is a spiritual thing. LSD is just an adjunct. It helps. It opens the personality, and loosens the I-you barrier. That is very important. It loosens the subject-object barrier and gives you a feeling of openness, and the feeling of unity with the universe, with your fellow man or fellow woman. These effects can be helpful, also, without psychoanalysis and without psychotherapy. But that was the medical indication. That was the reason why Sandoz distributed it all over the world for testing.
W.N. Do you know if those psychiatrists who used LSD in therapy had ingested LSD themselves ?
A.H. Yes. And it was suggested that the psychiatrist should use it to get inside the world of his patient. That was suggested by Sandoz.
W.N. Is there any way to tell what you’re getting on the black market ?
A.H.- I could analyze it in the laboratory. But it is difficult. I’ll give you an example of what happened in Basel. Two young men came to the hospital in a coma. One died. The other recovered and said he had taken LSD. There was a little sample of this, and I analyzed it. It was pure strychnine ! So these things happened, and then they decide that people had died by having taken LSD. Before I wrote my book, I, again, tested the whole literature. One does not know the lethal dose of LSD ! Not one person has ever died from LSD itself ! That is a very strange situation. Because the difference between an active dose and a toxic dose is so large with no other compound. If you take, let’s say, 10 times as much alcohol as you need to get really stone drunk, then you die. Or, if you take 3 times as much heroin as you need for a good flash, then you die. But with LSD, we know not the lethal dose. We have tests with animals, and there we have an interval of one to 10,000, from active to lethal dose. This is the least toxic compound that exists. You have so many people who died from alcohol, who died from all kinds of medicaments. I think millions of people have taken LSD. Not in one case, did a person die from LSD itself.
This is the least toxic compound that exists.
W.N. Do you see a time when LSD will be available again, for use in medicine and psychiatr ?
A.H. I hope so, I hope that it will be possible. I would not say that it absolutely would be free. But under controlled conditions, it should become available. Psychiatrists could have access to LSD, and if somebody would like to have an LSD experience, he should have the possibility, under controlled conditions and medical supervision, to have such an experience. I think that would be the next step in our society. I could also imagine that it would be made available for meditation sessions, under conditions where all these accidents cannot happen.
W.N. It seems that, in our society, it would have to come back through the scientific and medical communities, and gain a reputable status, in order to be freed-up to be used for transformation.
A.H. I think in these, sort of, primitive societies, there we have a model of how to use this kind of compound. There is the curandero, the priest-doctor, who is the one to distribute it. He is the guide. He must be prepared. Before you can use it, you must know how to. You must be ceremonial clean, by abstinence, praying, and fasting, and then teonanacatl, the sacred mushroom will bring you near to God. Otherwise, it may make you insane. They know it. They had the experience for 2,000 years. That could be a model for us. I think we should learn these things in our society, we just have not… oh, the priest-doctors of our society are the psychiatrists. Our psychiatry is still very rational minded. The deep religious background of the human mind is not respected as it should be. It is just a subject-object approach to the whole problem. The transpersonal psychology is, I hope, approaching another attitude to this kind of agent, which should not be named drug. One should never speak of drugs because of the bad connotations with drugs. We should never use the word drug for these kinds of agents. Also, the word hallucinogens is not so good. Hallucinations are not the most important things about these kinds of agents. We have “psychedelics”, coined by Humphrey Osmond. It is a rather good word. And now we have entheogens. Entheogens. That means bringing you nearer to god. That would also be easier for the government. If the government would see that it is just not a drug. Because so many bad things which are attributed to LSD are not from LSD.
I could tell you a story which happened in Basel, the town where I live. A very well known young writer published, in the Basel newspaper, a report. He had been in Mexico, had attended a session with mescaline, and was very deeply impressed. He came home and wrote an article, and said… “It is very, very strange. I had such a beautiful experience in Mexico. In Mexico, the drug produces such wondrous effects, and here, my friends die in the bathroom. But all his friends who died, died because they had taken heroin. So he said THE DRUG, he speaks about THE DRUG, and you should not speak… that does not exist. Alcohol exists, nicotine, heroin, LSD, but each single agent has specific properties, specific possibilities for application, and specific dangers.
W.N. The quality of these entheogens, or psychedelics, is that it does show you a different reality. That makes me question whether the government would ever see the possibility of making these drugs available.
A.H. I think the generation which is now representative of the government would not see, but now younger people that have had the experience with LSD and who have grown up and who now become leaders of the country may see that you can change the situation.
Yes. The young generation become the president and change the country. (Audience laughter and applause.)
I will tell you a story about this presidency. I have had, and still have many visitors coming to see and speak with me. One happened when I was at work at Sandoz many years ago. Somebody knocked at the office door, and finally I opened it, there was a beautiful girl, blonde hair, blue eyes, long dress, a hippie. I asked, “How could you come in and who are you ?” She said, “I’ve come from the United States. My name is Jane. I came just to visit you.” And I said, “How is it possible that you could… we have 3 control posts, the main gate, and then the gate to the laboratory, and with such unusual dress ?” And she said; “Oh, I am an angel. I can pass everywhere.” (Audience laughter.) And then she said, “I have come to visit you. You must help me to give LSD to our president.” (It was Johnson, at that time.) I was not able to help her. Maybe if we had succeeded, the whole course of the United States would have been changed. (Audience laughter.) She was such a nice girl, and she was so hopeful that I could be able to do this.
W.N. I wonder if you could talk a bit about your conception of the other realities.
A.H. I just gave a lecture at Santa Barbara titled the transmitter-receiver concept of reality. After I had this experience with LSD, of course, I was quite concerned about what reality is, because until then I had believed there is just one reality, and that any other reality just doesn’t exist. But then I knew there exists another reality. I was thinking about this problem, that we are scientists, rational men, we want a rational explanation of this phenomenon and, of course, during my LSD experience the exterior world had not changed. That was clear. So there was something inside that must have changed. That gave me the concept of reality as the product of the transmitter and the receiver. The transmitter is the exterior world, the whole universe including the whole material world, including, even, our whole body. The receiver is our conscious-making spiritual center, that inner spiritual room, and the antennae are our 5 sense organs.
Let us speak about the optical picture of reality. What is outside, regarding the optical picture, we have electromagnetic waves, the wavelengths of ultrashort roentgen waves up to middle-long radio waves. It is all the same, all the electromagnetic base, just at different wavelengths, and from this enormous spectrum our receiver can only realize a very small spectrum of 0.4 – 0.7 millimicrons. Within this small spectrum we are sensitive to, we are able to experience it as light. And within this small spectrum, we can receive wavelengths of 0.4 as blue and 0.7 as red. We say,”That is red.” But that happens inside. It’s a transformation. We must realize that we have the screen inside. Everybody creates our own reality. Everybody has cosmogonic potency inside. Everybody is really the creator of a world of his own, that is to say the acoustical world. What exists outside? Outside exists compressions and dilations of the air. You cannot play music in a vacuum. It’s just wave-like compressions and dilations of the air. There exists a large spectrum of such kinds of waves, but we have only from 20,000 to 25,000 vibrations per second which we can perceive as sound. The rest doesn’t exist. Therefore, what we see, our beautiful, our colorful world, does not exist outside. What exists outside is matter and energy and nothing else… matter in all kinds of forms. Living forms or inorganic forms.
What we know from the exterior world has been disclosed by scientific research. Objectively, there exists an exterior world. But we can only disclose of it what we experience with our sense organs or by scientific treatments. We can pick up radio waves. And then smaller waves than sound, the optical field. So you have a screen with sound which we can hear, and these colors which we can see. But if our eyes would be sensitive to radio waves, you could see to Europe from here. If our eyes would be sensitive to ultra-short roentgen waves, objects would seem transparent and this transparent reality would be as real as our every day reality. It shows that what we experience under LSD is not an illusion, not delusion. We have just opened our receiver. Our inner receiver is transformed and then we see another aspect of the transcendental reality.
W.N. None the less real.
A.H. Yes. Yes. As real as the other.