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Albert Hofmann: LSD – the Stuff that Dreams Are Made of

Like most drugs, LSD has a mixed record. Its ability to induce altered states of consciousness birthed great hopes of a cure for debilitating conditions like depression or schizophrenia. The story of its discovery, however, is a tale of dedicated research in a laboratory in Basel.

Lysergic acid diethylamide – better known as LSD, or “acid”, the name it was given in the US counterculture movement of the 1960s – was first synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann (1906–2008) in 1938. Not until five years later did Hofmann find LSD’s psychedelic properties. Once again, it was a laboratory accident that led to this groundbreaking discovery.

An unexpected discovery

16th April, 1943. In his laboratory at the pharmaceutical company Sandoz in Basel, Albert Hofmann decides to take another look at a substance he produced five years ago in his search for an agent to stimulate circulation and breathing. While re-synthesizing LSD, he accidentally comes in contact with the fluid. Soon, he is affected by “a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness”. He goes home and lies down. For two hours, he is immersed in a dream-like state: “I was overwhelmed by an uninterrupted stream of fantastic images of extraordinary plasticity and vivacity, accompanied by an intense kaleidoscopic play of colours.”

Fascinated, Hofmann performed a self-experiment three days later, intentionally ingesting 0.25 milligrams of LSD. In the course of the next few hours, he experienced disturbing emotions and intense changes in perception. After a while, these gave way to pleasurable feelings of wonder at the beauty of the world around him. Hofmann had discovered a powerful psychoactive substance, capable of inducing shifts of consciousness in extremely small amounts.

A cure for depression

Many more experiments followed, with chemists developing drugs on the basis of LSD that had no hallucinatory effects. But the real interest in LSD was in the field of psychiatry. Sandoz introduced the drug commercially under the brand name Delysid for various psychiatric uses. In the 1950s, there were hopes that LSD could cure depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, arthritis, and more.

When millions of people began using LSD as a recreational drug in the American counterculture movement of the 1960s, it became known to produce not only ecstasy, but horror trips as well, in some cases leading to suicide attempts. LSD was prohibited in the United States in 1966 and in Germany a few years later.

Until his death in 2008, aged 102, Albert Hofmann remained intrigued by the spiritual dimension opened up to him through LSD. He was convinced that the careful and respectful use of the drug could alter human consciousness in beneficial ways, leading to a greater awareness of the wonder of life and the magnificence of nature.


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