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Cold War Drugs and the First Era of Psychedelic Science, 1945-65

Thursday Lecture Series

dateSeptember 26, 2019 timeThursday, 12:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University
  • Audience open exclusively to Columbia faculty, students, and invited guests
  • All others interested in attending, please email SOF/Heyman at [email protected].
Four B&W photos of a woman. In one photo she drinks a clear liquid.

Cold War Drugs and the First Era of Psychedelic Science, 1945-65
Benjamin Breen, Assistant Professor of History, UC Santa Cruz (Society of Fellows Alumni)

In 1952, a cheerful, Jung-obsessed Scottish psychiatrist named Ronald Sandison paid a visit to Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. He was there to meet a chemist named Albert Hoffman, today best remembered as the discoverer of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Hoffman and his associates, Sandison recalled, “spoke of LSD as enabling them to hold a mirror to themselves, of enabling them to understand and see things in themselves which they had not known before.” Sandison believed that these experiences could not be readily classified according to older scientific categories: they seemed to derive “not from drug intoxication… but from the release of some inner life force hitherto denied to the individual.” From 1952 until the mid-60s, Sandison began to systematically prescribe LSD to his psychiatric patients – and to himself.

Decades later, Sandison wrote a mournful letter to Hoffman. “I find that people have forgotten about the early use of LSD,” he said. “Almost all our work was done in the 1950s. Most people think of the drug as a child of the 60s.” This talk is part of a research project on this largely forgotten first era of “psychedelic science,” which spanned the period between 1945 and 1965. It is a story that ties together, in surprising and sometimes profound ways, the histories of Cold War intelligence agents, experimental anthropologists like Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, early computer science researchers, and a generation of psychiatrists whose utopian ambitions faltered in a nascent age of anxiety.

Photo Caption: Stills from a 1957 CBS television documentary entitled "Focus on Sanity,” featuring an unnamed Los Angeles woman given 100 micrograms of LSD as part of an experiment led by UCLA psychiatry professor Sidney Cohen.