The Pioneers of Psychedelics

Albert hoffman pioneers of psychedelics

Today’s psychedelic revivalists must acknowledge those who blazed trails before them. We spotlight some legendary pioneers of psychedelics.

By Jake Sherman

Where would we be today without the groundbreaking research, cultural leadership, and self-sacrifice of the pioneers of psychedelics? Though their indigenous history goes back millennia, psychedelics stormed into the west beginning around mid-20th century. The discovery of LSD in the 1940s led to countercultural interest in other psychedelic substances. This social revolution of popular experimentation and promising therapeutic research was officially halted with the federal bans of the late 60s and early 70s.

Both before and after their blacklisting, many spiritual and creative leaders of the last 80 years touted the therapeutic benefits of psychedelic drugs. Due to their illegal status, researchers have been unable to get the federal funding to facilitate thorough research, and even had trouble accessing the compounds themselves.

Still, psychedelics are effective at treating addiction, depression, headaches, PTSD, and even Alzheimer’s. Promising research continues to flow out of Johns Hopkins and other universities, and there are signs that the government will relax restrictions on therapeutically beneficial psychedelic compounds.

Here’s a look at five pioneers who helped put the field of psychedelics into launch position.

Albert Hoffman: Father of LSD

Albert Hofmann - Wikipedia

Photo by Stefan Pangritz

A chemist from Baden, Switzerland, Albert Hoffman was a straitlaced guy. But he also had an explorative and spiritual side. When asked in 1996 why he became a chemist, he cited “mystical experiences” in his childhood in which “nature was altered in magical ways.” These provoked questions concerning “the essence of the… material world,” he said, prompting him to turn to science for answers.

Hoffman famously discovered LSD in 1938 while trying to synthesize a routinely conventional medicinal compound. Five years later, he accidentally absorbed some into his fingertips, and shortly after that, became the first person to intentionally trip on LSD. Hoffman later described LSD as a “sacred drug” and “medicine for the soul,” but always believed that it should be administered with care. He also said that LSD was misused by the 1960s counterculture and wrongly demonized by politicians. Albert Hoffman touted the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics until his death at the ripe old age of 102 in 2008.

Aldous Huxley: Opening Doors

Before his first experience with the psychedelic mescaline cactus in 1953, British writer Aldous Huxley was already culturally prominent. An acclaimed philosopher, poet, playwright, and author, he also edited the literary magazine Oxford Poetry.

Aldous Huxley

As such, he brought real authority when recounting his experiences, particularly in his famous book The Doors of Perception. Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny that Huxley indirectly influenced popular psychedelic experimentation. As one big example, legendary 60s rock band The Doors chose their name as a tribute to Huxley’s 1954 book.

Huxley recounted his mescaline experiences with self-awareness and an almost clinical detachment. Even as he theorized on the spiritual and psychological effects of the psychedelic, Huxley was a voice of practicality. He assured interviewers that the drugs would have no miraculous effects on an artist’s work or talents. A mediocre painter would wake up the day after a trip no more skilled – though perhaps more enlightened.

In addition to helping start serious discussion about psychedelics, Huxley had the distinction of performing a unique psychedelic experiment – on himself. On his deathbed in 1963, Huxley had his wife inject him with LSD, and a few hours later embarked on his final journey.

Timothy Leary: Culture Prophet

Harvard psychology professor Timothy Leary might be the biggest name in the history of psychedelics – and it’s no mystery why. If Huxley projected scholarly dignity, Leary was his polar opposite. Leary’s outrageous antics ultimately clouded his important research.

Leary with John Lennon and Yoko Ono

After early experimentation with mushrooms in 1960, Leary moved on to LSD and became its head prophet. He was loud, charismatic, and helped bring familiarity with psychedelics into the mainstream. He also became a poster child for 1960s counter-culture.

Leary’s antics got him placed on a CIA watch list, fired from his position at Harvard, and labeled by then-president Richard Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America”. While he is no doubt responsible for making the American public aware of psychedelics, his legacy is a mixed bag. Many hold him responsible for the eventual ban on psychedelics and the stigmatization that continues until today.

Stanislav Grof: Therapeutic Trailblazer

Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof was one of the earliest researchers of the effects of LSD on the psyche. His work eventually led him to become the chief of psychiatric research for the famous Spring Grove Experiment.

From 1963 to 1976, hundreds of psychiatric patients and addicts at the Spring Grove Clinic in Catonsville, Maryland were given psychedelic therapies. The Spring Grove Experiment remains the largest scientific study of psychedelics to this day.

The trials yielded positive results, but certain standard statistical practices were lacking. The growing stigmatization hovering over psychedelics also overshadowed the study’s results. The program met its end in an undignified termination.

Grof continued his work even after the ban on psychedelics, focusing instead on breathing techniques as a mind-expanding exercise. Though his earlier work did not achieve immediate results, it certainly set the stage for today’s science-based psychedelic revival.

Rick Doblin: Visionary Structuralist

Rick Doblin

In a field bursting with new organizations and companies emerging into the psychedelics scene, one venerated institution has already stood for over 30 years. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has been responsible for many important forward steps over the years, particularly in research and regulatory reform.

Rick Doblin, MAPS’s founder and executive director, studied and advocated the health benefits of cannabis and psychedelics for his entire career. Rick founded MAPS in 1984 during some of the darkest years of federal prohibition; a testament to his visionary personality. These days, Doblin and MAPS are focusing on MDMA-assisted therapy research, Ayahuasca-assisted treatment, and Ibogaine-assisted addiction therapy. MAPS recently completed the first double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the therapeutic use of LSD since the early 1970s.

Roland Griffiths: A New Dawn

The work of psychiatry and neuroscience professor Roland Griffiths represents the culmination of the efforts by many of the others on this list – but he is also a modern-day psychedelics pioneer himself.

Photo of Dr. Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D.
Roland Griffiths

As the director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Griffiths is responsible for clinical research in psychedelic therapies for addiction, depression, and anxiety.

Griffiths’ work also includes pressuring the US government to reclassify psychedelics as Schedule IV Controlled Substances. This would put drugs like psilocybin in the same category as common prescription medications such as Xanax or Valium.

Thanks to his influence and that of other psychedelics pioneers, the last few years have seen a major uptick in scientific interest in psychedelic therapies. This contemporary research brings fresh perspective to studies from the 1950s and beyond, and aims for fast, cost-effective, and lasting psychedelic-assisted therapies for a variety of health conditions.