Spotlight on Groundbreaking Researchers: Humphry Osmond

By Jake Sherman

Psychedelic research innovator Dr. Humphry Osmond’s biography reads like a thriller. The respected psychiatrist “dosed” Aldous Huxley (upon request), worked with the CIA and MI6, and revolutionized psychedelic therapy. To say psychedelics wouldn’t be the same without Osmond is an understatement, since he’s the one who named it.

Osmond was also full of contradictions. He had a conservative demeanor, though he advocated an out-of-the-box approach to psychiatry. He was well-respected by his academic peers, but they often scoffed at other advocates of the then-emerging field of psychedelics. And despite having an outsized impact on psychedelics research, Osmond has an undersized legacy.

Writer, Banker, Doctor, Spy

Humphry Osmond was born into a middle-class family in Surrey, England, in 1917. After dabbling in banking, architecture, and theater writing, he graduated from medical school at King’s College in London. With WWII raging, Osmond joined the Royal Navy as a doctor in 1942 and trained in psychiatry while serving.

It was while working at a London hospital after the war that Osmond first discovered psychedelics. As he researched LSD and mescaline he believed that they had an effect on the brain similar to schizophrenia. This caused him to further speculate that schizophrenia is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.

New Surroundings

In 1951, Osmond departed a London that wasn’t overly receptive to his ideas, in favor of Weyburn, Canada. As unlikely as it was remote, the destination held an extra allure for Osmond. The province of Saskatchewan, where the Weyburn Mental Hospital was located, was in the process of enacting radical change. 

The hospital gave Osmond free reign, and he didn’t waste any time rebuilding its program from the ground up. Art programs, family visits, music therapy, and field trips into town raised patient morale. Osmond also trained attendants to be psychiatric nurses and instilled them with broader authority to help seldom-seen and overburdened doctors. All of this helped drive down inpatient levels by two-thirds as patients gained the skills to live independently.

But those weren’t the only changes Osmond drove at Weyburn. He also believed in an extreme – but pragmatic – form of empathy-building by trying to understand how patients felt. During his tenure, doctors and nurses took LSD to better know their patients. Osmond also hired an architect – whom he convinced to take LSD as well – to design a new hospital building. Gone were the long and narrow corridors that made patients uneasy. In their place was a friendly, circular building full of intimate spaces.

Friends in High Places

Osmond is also credited with providing famed psychedelics advocate Aldous Huxley with his first known dose of hallucinogens in 1953. At Huxley’s request, Osmond prepared a glass of water with mescaline while visiting Huxley at his home in Los Angeles. Extremely moved by the experience, Huxley went on to write “The Doors of Perception.”

The two would go on to become extremely chummy. In 1956, they exchanged an entertaining bit of correspondence about what to call this as-yet unnamed group of mind-altering substances. Huxley proposed the term “phanerothyme,” from the Greek “phaneros,” meaning reveal, and “thymos,” meaning soul. He even sent Osmond a little rhyme: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme.”

Not to be outdone, Osmond wrote back a rhyme of his own: “To fathom hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.” His term came from the Greek words for mind-manifesting, and of course, it’s the one we use today.

Groundbreaking Work on Alcoholism

While at Weyburn, Osmond also conducted groundbreaking studies on LSD’s effect on alcoholism. Over the course of 6 years, he treated roughly 2,000 treatment-resistant alcoholics. With one intense therapy session including a megadose of LSD, around 45% of the patients remained sober after 12 months.

The results were nothing short of incredible. Bill Wilson, a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, contacted Osmond about the therapy – though AA’s program otherwise eschewed treatments involving medication. But Osmond’s idea intrigued Wilson, who had tried LSD himself and recognized its spiritual potential. Wilson reckoned that the mystical experiences that LSD unlocked could pair well with the program’s emphasis on a higher being.

Osmond’s Impact Today

Humphry Osmond left Weyburn Mental Hospital for the United States in 1961 on an optimistic note, but his hopes for psychedelic-assisted therapies were dashed just a few years later as following Richard Nixon’s lead, governments around the world clamped down on psychedelics research as the War on Drugs unfolded.

Research on psychedelics therapies essentially stopped for decades after, as funding and even access to the drugs dried up. By the time Oswald died in 2004, the quiet beginnings of a psychedelics resurgence were already underway. Since then, studies on psilocybin, LSD, mescaline, MDMA, and ketamine – among other drugs – are today proving their utility. Countless patients are benefiting from psychedelics-based therapies for treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, anxiety, addiction, ADHD, and even Alzheimer’s.

Osmond even had a profound influence on the use of conventional psychiatric drugs. Thanks to his research into psychedelics and chemical imbalances of the brain, psychiatric medication in general became more widely accepted. Time will tell if the world of science will continue to follow his lead – but at least for now, all signs point to “yes.”