By Tessa Eskin
In the spring of 1943, Albert Hoffman made history as the first person to intentionally ingest LSD, creating Bicycle Day in the process.
The Swiss chemist made accidental contact with the substance a few days prior, while working with what he thought was an entirely conventional medical compound in his lab.
In that first accidental encounter, Hoffman entered a mildly drunken state, accompanied by fantastic images and “an intense, kaleidoscope-like play of colors.” The extraordinary experience was unlike anything he could have expected in his wildest dreams. He hadn’t even considered the compound to be of a psychedelic nature.
A true scientist, Hoffman knew he had to investigate further. Three days later, on April 19th, Hoffman prepared a 250-microgram dose of LSD. He ingested the compound at 4:20 in the afternoon. He felt mild effects at 5pm, and, accompanied by his lab assistant, got on his bicycle to head home.
While pedaling along, the LSD really hit his system. To Hoffman on his now legendary ride, the world was as if made anew. Colors brightened and pulsated and objects became warped and distorted, “like images in curved mirrors.” He was now in the intense throes of a full-on acid trip.
Decades later, Professor Thomas B. Roberts would christen the 19th of April “Bicycle Day” in commemoration of the experiment. Word spread, and Bicycle Day became celebrated as a pivotal point in the history of psychedelics.
That day in 1943 marked the beginning of a new era in chemistry, psychiatry, neurophysiology, and the cultural fabric of the 20th century. The discovery profoundly influenced social change in the 1960s, as well as the evolution of philosophy, music, literature, and the visual arts. But more than anything, Hoffman’s experiment presented a doorway through which humanity could attempt a richer understanding of human consciousness.
It Was Just a Normal Day in the Lab…
Albert Hoffman earned his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Zurich in 1929. Working from the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland, he experimented with the ergot fungus, which has its own rich history. Some believe that the Ancient Greeks dosed initiates with the fungus during their Eleusinian Mystery Rites. These transformative rituals of death and rebirth hint at the potential psychedelics hold as a tool for psychological renewal. But at the time, Hoffman’s goal was no more colorful than the extraction of a stimulant to treat respiratory and circulatory conditions.
The 25th compound Hoffman created in this research track was lysergic acid diethylamide (formally abbreviated as LSD-25). Testing on animals led to uninteresting results, and he soon lost interest. Years later, some unexplainable hunch led Hoffman to resume his experiments on LSD. Something drew him back in. The happy accident on April the 16th only confirmed his speculations. Hoffman knew he had to get to the root of the mysterious inner landscape he had briefly unveiled.
A New Frontier
Hoffman likened the effects of acid to the “profound and visionary encounters with nature” he’d experienced as a child. He believed these mystical encounters possible without psychedelics, but acknowledged that all too often the capacity of stimulated imagination is lost during maturation. For those without intuitive visionary experiences, LSD had the power to awaken the “inborn faculty of visionary experience.” And there lies the key.
The psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond dubbed LSD a ”psychedelic”, based on the Ancient Greek words for psyche (ψυχή, “soul”) and dēloun (δηλοῦν, “to make visible, to reveal”). It was this very mind-revealing effect of LSD that called to psychiatrists and therapists, then and now. With high hopes, the psychiatric field explored LSD as a tool to unblock trauma, neurosis, and addiction. For the first time in history, a chemical-based avenue to the unconscious seemed possible.
From the 1950s to the1970s, LSD was studied as a potential treatment for schizophrenia and alcoholism under the trade name Delysid. Meanwhile, clinical trials explored the effects of LSD as a treatment for anxiety, depression, psychosomatic diseases, and chiefly – addiction. The results varied, but showed considerable promise.
Acid Rocks the Culture
LSD drew attention across the intellectual, scientific, and government communities alike. The British government conducted secret trials on unsuspecting civilians. Across the pond, the US government experimented with it as a truth serum. Meanwhile, the CIA ran highly unethical trials as part of MKUltra, the nefarious mind control program of the 1950s.
Then came the hippies. The cultural revolution of the 1960s saw large gatherings of artists, intellectuals, and bohemians conducting acid tests and making a big colorful spectacle of themselves. Though Hoffman appreciated the creative use of LSD by artists like Aldous Huxley, he remained skeptical about the hippie movement. When Hoffman met the legendary psychedelics advocate Timothy Leary, he was disheartened. He felt that Leary’s provocative capers distracted from the essential issues.
Hoffman understood the complex nature of psychedelics: both their potential benefits, and the risks they pose when taken without care. To him, LSD was never meant as a pleasure drug or an escape; rather a tool for serious psychological processing and discovery. Instead, it ended up on the streets and became criminalized shortly thereafter. According to Hoffman, it was the blasé and careless attitude toward LSD that led to the downfall of legitimate scientific research of psychedelics.
From Problem Child to Wonder Child
After Bicycle Day and for the rest of his life, Albert Hoffman viewed LSD as a sacred tool. When combined with meditation it could help the user attain “a deeper, comprehensive reality”. He believed that if used correctly in suitable conditions, LSD would open the mind and senses, allowing for deeper therapeutic healing and a heightened connection to the natural world. To Hoffman, this holistic mindset was the antidote to the mental health crises facing Western society.
The psychiatric field acknowledged this potential, and conducted trials from the 1950s to the 1970s. These trials focused on the use of LSD to assist with anxiety, depression, alcoholism and opiate addiction. Unfortunately, many of these studies were flawed in terms of contemporary scientific standards, and with federal prohibition, the subject was left abandoned until recent years. Today, almost 80 years after Bicycle Day, exciting new discoveries are garnering serious attention from the scientific community.
A recent study saw patients with alleviated levels of anxiety after two LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions. The findings show that LSD can successfully soothe the existential anxiety of patients suffering from terminal illnesses. LSD promotes feelings of interconnectedness and wellbeing, giving peace of mind, relaxation and mental strength to those who need it most. The world is turning back to LSD and psychedelics as a form of deep therapy. Albert Hoffman died in 2008, but one can imagine that he’d be proud to see his work come full circle, with his discovery finally being used to help those in need.