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Psychedelic History













Mind-Blowing and Its Methods

A History of Psychedelic Americana (1955-2017)



“I realized the young people with long hair didn’t need me to eat the little things. Kids ate them anywhere and anytime, and they didn’t respect our customs.”

— María Sabina

Humans have consumed psilocybin, the naturally occurring psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, for more than 10,000 years. Until the mid 20th century, the context was religious. That changed on June 29, 1955, when a vice president of J.P. Morgan named R. Gordon Wasson traveled to Mexico with a photographer to the mud hut of the Mazatec curandera (medicine woman) María Sabina and they became, in Wasson’s words, the “first white men in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms.”

The subsequent Life magazine article written by Wasson in 1957, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” opened a Pandora’s Box that would see, among other things, the birth of the American psychedelic counterculture, the defilement of the mushroom ritual, and ultimately, the banning of psilocybin across much of the world. The article also eventually led to Sabina’s ruin as Westerners came to her by the hundreds.

Wasson’s intentions were sincere, if naive. An amateur ethnomycologist, he had spent the previous thirty years traveling with his wife Valentina, documenting differing cultural attitudes toward wild mushrooms.

“We were not interested in what people learn about mushrooms from books, but what untutored country folk know from childhood — the folk legacy of the family circle,” Wasson recalled. “It turned out that we had happened on a novel field of inquiry.”

Examples of the dried Psilocybe mexicana used by  curandera  Sabina.

Examples of the dried Psilocybe mexicana used by curandera Sabina.

Wasson found that many cultures across the world worshipped mushrooms and had constructed elaborate religious ceremonies around their consumption. He determined to find out which kinds of mushrooms were worshipped and why. He was especially interested in the Aztecs and early Spanish missionary accounts of the Aztec mushroom ceremony of eating theteonanacatl, or “God’s flesh.”

Wasson made several trips to Mexico in search of those who still performed the mushroom rite, but it wasn’t until 1955 in the Oaxacan village of Huautla de Jiménez that he was successful. He visited the town hall and asked an official if he could help him learn the secrets of the divine mushroom. “Nothing could be easier,” the official replied. The official took Wasson to a mountainside where the mushrooms grew in abundance, and then to higher ground where María Sabina lived.

María Sabina was well-respected in the village as a healer and shaman. She’d been consuming psilocybin mushrooms regularly since she was seven years old, and had performed the velada mushroom ceremony for over 30 years before Wasson arrived.

The intention of the all-night velada was to commune with God to heal the sick. The spirits, if effectively contacted, would tell Sabina the nature of the sickness and the way it could be healed. Vomiting by the afflicted was considered an essential part of the ceremony. Each participant in the ritual would ingest psilocybin mushrooms as Sabina (who typically ingested twice as much) chanted invocations to coax forth the divine.

Maria Sabina and her son, Aurelio, under the influence of mushrooms. Huautla de Jimenez, 1955. (LIFE)

Maria Sabina and her son, Aurelio, under the influence of mushrooms. Huautla de Jimenez, 1955. (LIFE)

“Am I not good?” she would ask the spirits. “I am a creator woman, a star woman, a moon woman, a cross woman, a woman of heaven. I am a cloud person, a dew-on-the-grass person.”

A lifelong Catholic, Sabina blended Christian elements into Mazatec ritual as she guided participants through their visions. Surprisingly, and in contrast to his predecessors, the local bishop did not consider Sabina’s ritual heretical. “The church is not against these pagan rites — if they may be called that,” Father Antonio Reyes Hernandez said. “The wise ones and curers do not compete with our religion. All of them are very religious and come to our mass, even María Sabina.”

Sabina was apprehensive of Wasson when he arrived, but agreed to conduct the ritual after assurances from the village official, who was a trusted friend. Wasson and his photographer tripped throughout the night as Sabina performed the velada, and their minds were summarily blown. “For the first time the word ecstasy took on real meaning,” Wasson later wrote. “For the first time it did not mean someone else’s state of mind.”

Sabina’s reluctance to introduce Wasson to the ceremony had less to do with his being a foreigner and more to do with the fact that Wasson and his colleague weren’t in need of healing.

“It’s true that Wasson and his friends were the first foreigners who came to our town in search of the saint children and that they didn’t take them because they suffered from any illness,” she recalled. “Their reason was that they came to find God.”

Wasson returned to the States with a hell of a story. It piqued the interest of Life magazine, who bankrolled further trips to the village to report on and take photographs of the Mazatec ritual. It also attracted the attention of the CIA, which was in the middle of its covert drug mind control programProject MK ULTRA. Wasson became an unwitting agent in the program after the CIA secretly funded Wasson’s trips to Mexico throughout 1956 under a shell organization named the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research.

“Seeking the Magic Mushroom” went 1957-viral upon its publication. Accounts diverge as to whether Sabina approved of Wasson using photographs of her for the article. Wasson for his part changed Sabina’s name to Eva Mendez and did not reveal the name and location of the village.

Wasson witnessed nine mushroom ceremonies in all, each conducted by Sabina. On one trip, he was accompanied by the eminent French mycologist Roger Heim, who identified the species of magic mushrooms and sent samples to Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who twenty years earlier had synthesized LSD. Hofmann was able to isolate the chemical structure of psilocybin and create a synthetic version. His pharmaceutical company Sandoz began sending doses to research institutions and clinics across the world.

Dr. Timothy Leary and his partner-in-crime at Harvard, Dr. Richard Alpert (Dying to Know)

Dr. Timothy Leary and his partner-in-crime at Harvard, Dr. Richard Alpert (Dying to Know)

The psychologist Dr. Timothy Leary, a rising academic star at Harvard, traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1960 after reading the article. Despite his professional success, he described himself during this period as “an anonymous institutional employee who drove to work each morning in a long line of commuter cars and drove home each night and drank martinis … like several million middle-class, liberal, intellectual robots.” He purchased some mushrooms from a local curandera and, rather than partake in a mushroom ritual, ingested them by the pool of his summer villa.

“I learned more about my brain and its possibilities and more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than in the preceding 15 years of studying and doing research in psychology.” — Dr. Timothy Leary

Leary returned to Harvard and, after securing doses of psilocybin from Sandoz, started the Harvard Psilocybin Project with his colleague Dr. Richard Alpert. Aldous Huxley, with his lifelong interest in altered states, served on the board.

The rose window above at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, where Leary and Alpert administered psilocybin tests on student volunteers. (Wikimedia)

The rose window above at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, where Leary and Alpert administered psilocybin tests on student volunteers. (Wikimedia)

Leary and Alpert developed pioneering concepts in psychedelic therapy such as set and setting. They tested whether ingesting psilocybin could reduce recidivism in prison inmates (in the Concord Prison Experiment) and catalyze religious experiences in divinity students (in the Marsh Chapel Good Friday Experiment). The results were ringing endorsements of psilocybin’s mystical and therapeutic potential, but the experiments were later discredited due to unsound methodology as well as for omitting details related to the intense anxiety experienced by many of the participants.

The tendency by Leary and his colleagues to overemphasize the positive aspects of the psychedelic experience while downplaying the negative would have profound consequences once psychedelics escaped the lab and hit the streets of San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Cambridge, Massachusetts in the early 1960s.

“Some of the backlash that swept the psychedelics out of the research labs and out of the hands of physicians and therapists,” wrote psychedelic researcher Rick Doblin, “can be traced in part to the thousands of cases of people who took psychedelics in non-research settings, were unprepared for the frightening aspects of their psychedelic experiences and ended up in hospital emergency rooms.”

The party came to an end for Alpert and Leary in May of 1963.

The party came to an end for Alpert and Leary in May of 1963.

Leary and Alpert were doing more than simply testing psychedelics in controlled experimental settings. They were tripping balls every weekend and urging their students to do the same. Once word got out to the authorities, Leary and Alpert were fired. Soon after, Leary began his public campaign exhorting America’s youth to “Tune in, Turn on, and Drop Out.” Alpert traveled to India and came back bearded, wearing a dhoti, and calling himself Ram Dass. By 1966, psilocybin and LSD were illegal in the United States.

Beatniks, hippies, celebrities like Bob Dylan and John Lennon, scientists and seekers of all stripes flooded the village of Huautla de Jiménez after the Life article was published. Sabina turned few away, although she frequently expressed misgivings about introducing Wasson to the mushrooms, and always emphasized what she saw as the mushroom’s true purpose.

The publicity was disastrous for the Mazatec community, who blamed Sabina for bringing misfortune to the village and defiling the velada ritual. Sabina’s house was burned down, and federales frequently raided her home, accusing her of selling drugs to foreigners. Hippies rented cabins in neighboring villages. Tourists had bad trips and went raving naked through town.

One might ask why Sabina turned so few foreigners away. Some accounts attribute it to her kindness, others to a resigned acceptance of her new role as the cultural ambassador of the Mazatec mushroom ritual. She was also known to occasionally charge tourists for her services.

Sabina’s legacy has drawn foreign tourists to Mexico for decades. (Flickr)

Sabina’s legacy has drawn foreign tourists to Mexico for decades. (Flickr)

In the 1970s, Mexican authorities banned the use of psilocybin mushrooms. The influx of tourists receded, but in Sabina’s eyes, the damage had been done.

“From the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children lost their purity,” she said. “They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on they won’t be any good. There’s no remedy for it.”

Wasson, for his part, agreed. He expressed remorse for the rest of his life for his role in popularizing the recreational use of magic mushrooms. “A practice carried on in secret for three centuries or more has now been aerated,” he wrote. “And aeration spells the end.”

Sabina died penniless at the age of 91 in 1985. In Oaxaca today, one can find her image marketed on t-shirts, restaurants, and taxis.

More than forty years after research into their therapeutic effects was all but outlawed, magic mushrooms are now being used in a manner much closer to what María Sabina considered to be their true purpose: to heal the sick.

In clinical trials underway across the world, hundreds of cancer patients, drug addicts, and those suffering from anxiety and depression are reporting profound life-changing and mystical experiences. For many participants, the benefits from one dose of mushrooms are long-lasting. In a 2006 trialstudying the potential of psilocybin to catalyze religious experience led by Dr. Roland R. Griffiths, more than 70 percent of the participants self-rated the experience as one of the five most important in their lives. Nearly a third rated it the single most important experience.

In NYU and Johns Hopkins studies whose results were published concurrentlyin November 2016, about 80 percent of cancer patients showed clinically significant reductions in anxiety and depression lasting some eight months after an initial dose.


A psilocybin study session at Johns Hopkins. (Wikimedia)

A psilocybin study session at Johns Hopkins. (Wikimedia)

Participants in the studies were given psilocybin in a chalice and guided through the experience as they wore an eye mask and listened to calming music. They were urged to “trust, let go and be open.”

The researchers cautioned that the positive results should not be taken as an endorsement of the recreational use of magic mushrooms:

The positive findings of the study cannot help but raise concern in some that it will lead to increased experimenting with these substances by youth in the kind of uncontrolled and unmonitored fashion that produced casualties over the past three decades.

Nevertheless, the researchers conclude, “discovering how these mystical and altered consciousness states arise in the brain could have major therapeutic possibilities…It would be scientifically shortsighted not to pursue them.”


Billy Hitchcock’s country estate in Millbrook, New York, was occupied by Timothy Leary and his followers during much of 1967. (Alvis Upitis/Getty Images)

Billy Hitchcock’s country estate in Millbrook, New York, was occupied by Timothy Leary and his followers during much of 1967. (Alvis Upitis/Getty Images)

William Mellon Hitchcock was not your typical acid head.

Billy, as he was called, was a tall, charming blonde stockbroker in his twenties who worked at Lehman Brothers, for one. He was heir to one of the largest fortunes in the country, for another. And he had a trust fund that lined his pockets with $15,000 a week to do what he pleased. Sometimes he played the stocks. Sometimes he dropped acid. In January of 1963, Billy thought it’d be a smart investment to spend half a million dollars on 2,500 acres of land two hours north of New York City on the outskirts of the sleepy village of Millbrook.

German-born gas magnate Charles F. Dieterich bought the land from a Civil War widow in the 1880s, and turned the farm into a game preserve where on the weekends politicians like Governor Nelson Rockefeller hunted deer, pheasants and rabbits. The crown jewel of Daheim, as the estate was then known, was a 64-room Bavarian baroque mansion and gatehouse. After Dieterich’s death in 1927, the estate had passed to William Teagle, president of Standard Oil. By the time Billy Hitchcock bought the farm in 1963, the estate had fallen into disrepair, the dilapidated mansion an afterthought. That is, until Peggy Hitchcock, his impossibly hip 28-year-old sister who turned him onto acid, asked him for a favor.

Drs. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, the partners in crime behind the ill-fated Harvard Psilocybin Project, were in bad shape in the summer of 1963 as the Daheim estate sale was being finalized. Earlier that spring, after giving psilocybin to an undergraduate, Alpert became the first Harvard professor in the twentieth century to get fired. (“Some day it will be quite humorous,” Alpert said, “that a professor was fired for supplying a student with ‘the most profound educational experience in my life.’ That’s what he told the Dean it was.”) Leary’s ouster followed days later, for the far tamer reason of failing to show up to teach his scheduled classes.

Leary claimed he knew it was coming from the moment he first tried LSD back in September of 1961. “From the date of this session,” he said, “it was inevitable that we would leave Harvard, that we would leave American society and that we would spend the rest of our lives as mutants, faithfully following the instructions of our internal blueprints, and tenderly, gently disregarding the parochial social inanities.”

Their internal blueprints led them to first to Zihuatanejo, Mexico, then to the island of Antigua, and finally back to Cambridge, $50,000 in debt.

But then along came Peggy Hitchcock, who Leary introduced to LSD the year before and with whom he had a brief affair. In his autobiography, Timothy Leary wrote:

“Peggy Hitchcock was an international jet-setter, renowned as the colorful patroness of the livelier arts and confidante of jazz musicians, race car drivers, writers, movie stars. Stylish, with a wry sense of humor, Peggy was considered the most innovative and artistic of the Andrew Mellon family. Peggy was easily bored, intellectually ambitious, and looking for a project capable of absorbing her whirlwind energy. And that was us.”

She asked her brother Billy if anyone was staying at the boarded up mansion at his recently purchased cattle ranch. “He said no,” she recalled. “So Richard Alpert and I went up and looked and we thought it was great. The rent was a dollar a year.”

In September of 1963, Alpert, Leary, and Ralph Metzner (their colleague at Harvard) moved in, along with thirty or so of their followers. In aPoughkeepsie Journal article headlined “Scientists Plan No Experiments at Millbrook,” Alpert assured the reporter that their drug days were over. The plan was to “write extensively” and “live quietly.”

Standing on the grounds of the cattle ranch, with the waterfalls, meadows, rolling hills dotted with cows, and a rambling Bavarian castle with turrets that looked straight out of a medieval psychedelic fantasy, it’s a wonder the reporter failed to smell the bullshit.

Millbrook provided the perfect setting for Leary and company to explore the limits of psychedelics by tripping hard, and often. (Alvis Upitis/Getty Images)

Millbrook provided the perfect setting for Leary and company to explore the limits of psychedelics by tripping hard, and often. (Alvis Upitis/Getty Images)

Though it would be some 30 years before R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” hit the radio waves, one can almost hear its faint strings in the background as Dr. Richard Alpert leapt all slow motion-like from a second story window of the Millbrook mansion and tested that ill-conceived notion that would soon come to haunt parents the country over any time those three dreaded letters L-S-D were mentioned. Alas, Alpert did not fly. He broke his leg.

Just another day at Millbrook.

The mansion now renovated and replete with the requisite Persian rugs, pillows, mattresses and psychedelic art, its residents could trip with reckless abandon. It was, as Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain put it in Acid Dreams(1985), quite the scene:

“There were large aquariums with unusual fish, while other animals, dogs, cats, goats, wandered freely through the house. People stayed up all night tripping and prancing around the estate. (A stash of liquid acid had spilled in Richard Alpert’s suitcase, soaking his underwear, when the psychedelic fraternity was traveling back from Zihuatanejo, so anyone could get high merely by sucking on his briefs.)Everyone was always either just coming down from a trip or planning to take one. Some dropped acid for ten days straight, increasing the dosage and mixing in other drugs. Even the children and dogs were said to have taken LSD.”

Along with the residents came a rotating cast of celebrities, thinkers and artists. Jazz musicians like Charles Mingus and Maynard Ferguson tested their improvisational skills while playing bass and trumpet high on the roof. Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky frolicked nude on the grounds. Members of Warhol’s factory drove up when they needed a break from the amphetamine velocity of NYC living. Psychologists both pop and proper, such as Alan Watts, Humphrey Osmond and R.D. Laing, debated theory as Billy Hitchcock talked business with Swiss bankers on the phone.

Ah yes, Billy. Ever in the background at Millbrook, never quite front and center, never quite fitting in, but always around. Billy failed to see any contradictions between his worldly and psychedelic pursuits. Some at Millbrook felt he just didn’t get it, hadn’t quite broken through to the other side. Others suspected his intentions. Why, after all, would an entrenched member of the establishment be so eager to support those seeking to tear it down? But there were tender moments. During one trip, an agitated Billy had to be assured that the estate was really his. At the outset of one group trip where participants went around in a circle stating their questions they hoped to have answered and their intentions for the session, Hitchcock asked: “How can I make more money on the stock market?” Not your typical acid head, indeed.

Artists Rudi Stern and Jackie Cassen operate a psychedelic slide show seminar using lights and gels at Millbrook in 1966. (Yale Joel/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Artists Rudi Stern and Jackie Cassen operate a psychedelic slide show seminar using lights and gels at Millbrook in 1966. (Yale Joel/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

But this experiment in mystical living wasn’t just an endless party. The ringleaders were still academics at heart — plunged deep into uncharted intellectual terrain, to be sure, but compelled nonetheless to map that terrain as best they could.

Leary, Alpert and Metzner were looking for insight into the ultimate nature of reality, to systematize and program the psychedelic experience to reach that place of insight consistently. To that end, Leary, Alpert and Metzner published the journal The Psychedelic Review, held workshops on psychedelics twice a month that were decidedly more sober than the normal shenanigans, and wrote The Psychedelic Experience (1964), a trip manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. (John Lennon, who first took LSD in 1965 after a dentist dosed him and within weeks was dropping acid daily, would compose the revolutionary track “Tomorrow Never Knows” based on passages from ThePsychedelic Experience).

But as the months passed, Millbrook started to lose its scientific bearings, the scene growing wilder and wilder as word got out to colleges dotting the East Coast. Residents of Dutchess County grew ever more suspicious. Students at the nearby all women’s Bennett College were shown close-ups of Leary at the start of each term, with administrators warning them that fraternizing with this man would mean instant expulsion. For Leary and his followers, the Buddhist insight that catches hold by about the fifth acid trip that nothing, even the magical paradise of Millbrook, could last forever, turned into creeping fears of an imminent bust.

Timothy Leary, Ph.D, and Rosemary Woodruff work on a one of Leary’s lectures at the 63 room Hitchcock mansion in Millbrook, New York on June 15, 1967. (Alvis Upitis/Getty Images)

Timothy Leary, Ph.D, and Rosemary Woodruff work on a one of Leary’s lectures at the 63 room Hitchcock mansion in Millbrook, New York on June 15, 1967. (Alvis Upitis/Getty Images)

Those fears were realized at around 2am on Sunday, April 17, 1966, when the newly-appointed assistant district attorney G. Gordon Liddy — yes, that G. Gordon Liddy — led a nighttime raid on the Millbrook estate, search warrant in hand, a climax to months of surveillance.

Liddy and 22 officers busted down the main door without knocking, even though, like all doors on the property, it was never locked. They found 29 adults and 12 children, most of them asleep. Searching the premises, officers found a small amount of cannabis, but no acid or other drugs. They confiscated Leary’s son’s high school chemistry set. Women were strip searched and asked whether they “had intercourse” on the premises.

Leary came down the stairs from his bedroom wearing nothing but a t-shirt, arguing with Liddy that his constitutional rights were being violated as officers failed repeatedly to convince him to put on pants. He was arrested along with three others. In a newspaper account the next day, Sheriff Quinlan described the mansion’s interior as grotesque. “There were weird paintings on the walls and some exotic statues,” he said. “There were candles all over the place and the house just reeked with incense.”

The dream was over. From that point onward, Millbrook was under constant surveillance. Police set up roadblocks around the premises, and anyone who wanted to enter the estate had to be strip searched. Many of the OG regulars departed the scene, replaced by strung out youngsters getting into harder drugs, like methamphetamine. Leary was a sporadic presence, spending more and more time in California. John Perry Barlow, a regular at Millbrook during its final days who’d later write lyrics for the Grateful Dead, co-found the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and write the famed Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace manifesto, said Leary and others had “found Dr. Alpert’s manias so alarming they’d sent him packing off to India.” Alpert would return in 1969 bearded, wearing a dhoti and calling himself Ram Dass, crystallizing his learnings from India with the 1971 countercultural classic Be Here Now, which inspired an obsessed Steve Jobs to wander Alpert’s path in India in search of his guru.

The scene at Millbrook ultimately collapsed just as LSD went mainstream. Leary, Ginsberg and other Millbrook regulars led the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in January 1967, with Haight-Ashbury in full swing. The Beatles were taking acid, and everybody knew it. California Governor Reagan decried the demon drug of LSD, and soon-to-be President Richard Nixon called Timothy Leary the most dangerous man in America.

Demand for acid was high, and Billy Hitchcock, enterprising as ever, sensed an opportunity. He introduced Nicholas Sand, a Millbrook regular and aspiring underground chemist, to Tim Scully, a whizz kid chemist from Berkeley newly-arrived on the estate. With Hitchcock bankrolling the operation, the two chemists moved to California, set up a lab, and synthesized 3.6 million hits of Orange Sunshine — 250 micrograms of pure LSD bliss that hit the San Francisco streets right on time for the Summer of Love. Hitchcock soon followed his latest venture to the Bay Area, but not before evicting everybody from the estate he was now certain was his.

It was the end of things at Millbrook, and the beginning of the psychedelic 1960s for everybody else.


(Michael Hartigan/ Deviant Art )

(Michael Hartigan/Deviant Art)

In the quixotic quest for the self, few have gone as far (or far out) as neurophysiologist Dr. John C. Lilly (1915–2001). “I have explored,” he wrote in 1977, “and have voluntarily entered into domains forbidden by a large fraction of those in our culture who are not curious, are not explorative and are not mentally equipped to enter these domains.”

Today, his excesses receive as much attention as his achievements. He invented the world’s first sensory deprivation tank, but almost drowned in it while high on psychedelics. He also pioneered the field of dolphin communication, helping enact the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. But his lab’s unorthodox experiments — like jerking off dolphins to completionand injecting them with LSD — ultimately discredited the field for decades.

After a promising start to a career that saw him make contributions to the fields of biophysics, neurophysiology, electronics, computer science, and neuroanatomy, Lilly was by the 1970s on science’s radical fringe, unable to secure government grants or publish in academic journals. He spent his days in his deprivation tank high on ketamine, allegedly communicating with aliens.

Movie poster for Altered States (1980), via  Pulp International .

Movie poster for Altered States (1980), via Pulp International.

His life inspired the movie Altered States (1980), where the scientist Eddie Jessup (played by William Hurt in his film debut) combines psychedelics with sensory deprivation to horrific effect. After his colleague Mason Parrish calls him a whacko, Jessup goes on a rant that epitomized Lilly’s modus operandi throughout his career:

EDDIE JESSUP: What’s whacko about it, Mason? I’m a man in search of his true self…I think that that true self, that original self, that first self is a real, mensurate, quantifiable thing, tangible and incarnate. And I’m going to find the fucker.

John C. Lilly’s quest began in 1928 with a question: “How can the mind study itself?” He was 16, writing a prep school essay he titled “Reality.” In it, he puzzled through the relationship between thoughts, brain activity, and brain structure for the first time. The essay “laid out the trip for the rest of my life,” he recalled.

Lilly studied biology and physics at the California Institute of Technology, graduating in 1938. He went on to earn his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1942. At the height of World War II, he invented instruments for measuring gas pressure for jet pilots. But he tested the instruments on himself first—the start of a lifelong habit of self-experimentation that would earn Lilly the ire of the scientific community for his lack of rigor and standards. (“My body is a crash-test dummy,” he later wrote.)

He remained at Penn after his degree, studying psychoanalysis under Robert Waelder, who had studied with Anna Freud in Vienna. But he was ultimately more drawn to biophysics, which offered “more satisfying” concepts to explain the brain’s mysteries. He joined the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and began a decade of experiments on the brain, “becoming absorbed in the pursuit of the conscious self hidden somewhere in those cerebral folds.”

At the time, neurophysiology was puzzling through a question: does the brain need external stimulation to remain conscious? Lilly built the world’s first isolation tank to find out. And true to form, he was the first test subject.

He’d soon learn that no, the brain didn’t go unconscious when devoid of sensory input; it tripped balls.

By reducing external stimuli to nil, Lilly and his colleagues found that the sensory deprivation tank could produce all manner of altered states, from waking dreams to out-of-body experiences to alternate realities. The tank was lightproof and soundproof, with saltwater kept between 93 to 94 degrees Fahrenheit. (“So you can’t tell where the water ends and your body begins,” Lilly said).

Lilly with one of the first isolation tanks (LIFE)

Lilly with one of the first isolation tanks (LIFE)

Lilly found himself spending more and more time suspended in the womb-like embrace of the isolation tank over that first year. “Wouldn’t it be great to float like this 24 hours a day?” he marveled to his friend Pete Shoreliner. “You should look at dolphins,” Shoreliner said. “They’re available. Go down to the Marine Studios in Florida.”

At the time, cetacean communication research was in its infancy. Dolphins were considered vermin to East coast fishermen, who called them “herring hogs.” Lilly visited the Marine Studios and was instantly struck by the possibilities of cetacean intelligence after seeing the size of their brains.

Lilly opened a dolphin communication research lab in the Virgin Islands and began a decade of experiments. He found that dolphins could be taught to mimic the sounds of human speech. But what he wished to understand was what language the dolphins were speaking to themselves. Given their larger, more evolved brains, Lilly hypothesized that the dolphin mode of communication would be more sophisticated than ours.

(Lilly Estate)

(Lilly Estate)

He began recording their click-and-whistle conversations and discovered that dolphin frequency of speech in water matched exactly the frequency of human speech in air. Lilly concluded that the dolphins were speaking a language similar to humans, just much faster.

His research on dolphin communication and the unappreciated intelligence of cetacean life, published in Man and Dolphin (1961), captured the public’s imagination. Astronomers like Carl Sagan saw in Lilly’s efforts the foundations of approaches that could be used to communicate with extra-terrestrial intelligence. NASA provided Lilly with financial backing to build another lab in the Caribbean in 1963.

But Lilly never succeeded in his quest to crack the dolphin language. Along the way, he started taking acid. And that’s when things got weird.

LSD was legal and in ample supply in the 1950s while John Lilly was at the NIMH. But he held off trying it until 1964, after almost a decade of experiences in the sensory deprivation tank. Of his first time on LSD in the isolation tank, Lilly said: “I left my body and went into infinite distances — Dimensions that are inhuman…I traveled through my brain, watching the neurons and their activities.”

Lilly started injecting the dolphins with LSD, but nothing happened. As his psychedelic use increased, his enthusiasm for carrying through experiments at the research lab waned. Friends watched Lilly go “from a scientist with a white coat to a full blown hippy.” Gregory Bateson, who was director of the lab, left the project, and by 1968 funding had dried up. Lilly would continue research into dolphin communication for the rest of his life, but with private funding and using fringe methods like telepathy.

Hustler Magazine (Lilly Estate)

Hustler Magazine (Lilly Estate)

Any benefits of the lab’s research were overshadowed in the late 1970s when Hustler published a story about one of the lab assistants and a dolphin named Peter. Because dolphins were prone to sexual urges that disrupted research, the lab assistant Margaret Lovatt would relieve Peter when such moments arose. “I wasn’t uncomfortable with it, as long as it wasn’t rough,” she recalled years later. “It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch — just get rid of it, scratch it and move on. And that’s how it seemed to work out. It wasn’t private. People could observe it.”

When reporter Judith Hooper asked scientists for John Lilly’s whereabouts in the early 1980s, most responded with something along the lines of: “Do you mean, what dimension?”

Since the early 1970s, when he started taking the psychedelic ketamine in combination with sessions in the sensory deprivation tank, Lilly’s writings and interests grew increasingly eccentric. A ketamine vision told him that humans would create a malevolent network of “solid-state systems” that would evolve into an autonomous bioform bent on destroying humanity. He said he routinely communicated with a hierarchical group of alien beings he dubbed the Earth Coincidence Control Office (E.C.C.O. —an inspiration for the 1992 video game Ecco the Dolphin). The purpose of E.C.C.O was to guide human beings away from their “destructive programming” and thereby evolve to higher levels of being.

Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and John C. Lilly in 1991 (Wikimedia)

Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and John C. Lilly in 1991 (Wikimedia)

In his final years, Lilly was seen as something of a psychedelic visionary (he was reputed to have taken more LSD and ketamine than anyone alive), and he would oftentimes receive phone calls from seekers attempting to decipher his visions about aliens and cosmic entities. Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary were known to stop by for dips in the sensory deprivation tank, as were the physicists Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan.

Lilly never found the elusive self that drove him from the research lab to the ocean depths to outer space. “Guides at each level above ours pretend to be God as long as you believe them,” he recalled. “When you finally get to know the guide, he says, ‘Well, God is really the next level up.’ God keeps retreating into infinity.”

But along the way, Lilly did develop a maxim to guide his exploration, one he could summon by memory up to his final days:

“In the province of the mind what one believes to be true, either is true or becomes true within certain limits. These limits are to be found experimentally and experientially. When so found these limits turn out to be further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind there are no limits. However, in the province of the body there are definite limits not to be transcended.”

John C. Lilly’s body reached its limit on September 30, 2001, at the age of 86. As his delightfully-anachronistic website puts it:

“We can only imagine what limits he is transcending now.”


Psychopharmacologist Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin, developer of MDMA, at his home laboratory in Lafayette, California, in 2002. (Anthony Pidgeon/Getty Images)

Psychopharmacologist Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin, developer of MDMA, at his home laboratory in Lafayette, California, in 2002. (Anthony Pidgeon/Getty Images)

I am sitting in the garden of the late godfather of psychedelics, Dr. Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, on a hillside high above Berkeley. I am surrounded by psychoactive plants and psychedelic activists.

“Anyone wanna see the lab?” asks a caretaker of the grounds.

I join two young people as we clomp down a narrow garden path towards the lab of legend where Alexander Shulgin synthesized over 200 psychedelic compounds, among them MDMA (better known as “ecstasy” or “molly”), 2-CB (think ecstasy plus LSD), and DOM, the LSD-like psychedelic said to have driven Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd insane.

Shulgin compounds go in and out of vogue, but MDMA, with its combination of disinhibition, lucid intoxication, and feelings of well-being brought on by serotonin flooding the domes of its users, has remained the undisputed darling of clubs, raves and festivals across the world since it escaped from Shulgin’s lab in the 1970s.

But in recent years, efforts are underway that align more closely with Shulgin’s original vision for MDMA.

“MDMA changed my life,” combat veteran C.J. Hardin told The New York Times. “It allowed me to see my trauma without fear or hesitation and finally process things and move forward.”

Indeed, it turns out that the properties that make MDMA ideal for gyrating with reckless abandon against a reverberating subwoofer at a Burning Man sound camp are the same ones that make it a wonder drug for overcoming PTSD.

There’s just one problem: MDMA is still illegal.

A 1995 rave in Australia being broken up by police. Recreational MDMA use spread globally with rave party culture. (Wikimedia)

A 1995 rave in Australia being broken up by police. Recreational MDMA use spread globally with rave party culture. (Wikimedia)

Curiosity,” Alexander Shulgin was known to say when asked why he spent his life synthesizing mind-altering drugs. “Why have these things been revered for centuries? Why are they seen as being a conduit to contacting the spiritual world?”

It was curiosity that drove Shulgin to try mescaline in 1960 as a young chemist at Dow Pharmaceuticals. He’d been fascinated with its chemical structure for years. He took a fraction of a gram under the watch of friends, and his mind was veritably blown.

“I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit,” he said of his first psychedelic experience. “We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.’’

The following year, Shulgin made Dow a fortune by synthesizing the pesticide Zectran. As a token of appreciation, Dow left Shulgin alone to research and create chemicals of his choosing, occasionally reaching out to him to patent compounds of interest.

So, naturally, Shulgin started synthesizing psychedelics. Lots of them.

1963 was the fateful year Shulgin synthesized DOM. DOM’s effects lasted longer than LSD, and took longer to kick in. With LSD being made illegal in California in October 1966, DOM became an alluring substitute for dealers. Unfortunately, some accidentally dosed tabs at several times stronger than Shulgin recommended.

Allen Ginsberg dancing at the Human Be In, January 14, 1967.

Allen Ginsberg dancing at the Human Be In, January 14, 1967.

The results were disastrous. DOM hit the streets of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in 1967, just in time to get thousands of hippies way too high at the Human Be-In at Golden Gate Park as Allen Ginsberg regaled them with Hari Krishna chants. Newspapers reported on hospitalizations. Hamilton Morris writes that “one user in Manhattan ingested a dose and ritualistically performed seppuku, disemboweling himself with a samurai sword on Mother’s Day.” Dow traced the chemical’s provenance back to Shulgin, and severed ties.

So he came here, to this brick lab in the backyard of his home in the hills west of Berkeley, spending the next half century mapping a myriad of pathways to altered states.

The caretaker opens the door to the lab, which is adorned with a “Caution: Radioactive Materials” sign and a notice to authorities that “this is a research facility that is known to and authorized by the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office, all San Francisco DEA personnel, and the state and federal EPA authorities.”

The lab is cramped and dusty and smells of age, but feels very much in use and very much alive — it is as if Shulgin were simply out to lunch. Jars, flasks, beakers and test tubes crowd every counter. Plastic tubing crisscrosses metal pipes that hold all manner of glass implements in midair. My eyes are drawn to a rack of glass test tubes with labels scrawled in Shulgin’s handwriting. Here be dragons, I think to myself.

The writer in Shulgin’s lab.

The writer in Shulgin’s lab.

“Don’t get too excited,” the caretaker says with a smile as I finger one of the tubes. “There’s nothing illegal in here.”

I think about the razor’s edge of the law Shulgin danced on for most of his life, the pirouettes one must spin to be both a hero to drug legalization activists and an essential ally of the D.E.A., to be in a position to synthesize psychedelics in plain sight of the authorities while users of those same drugs end up in jail for years.

Shulgin worked under a Schedule I D.E.A. research license for decades, which allowed him to study drugs that were officially deemed to have no medical value and a high potential for abuse. In return, he gave talks to drug agents, supplied drug samples, and provided expert testimony in drug cases.

“That was his Faustian bargain,” recalled Rick Doblin, the psychedelic activist who founded the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in 1985. “In order to do his work, he had to be useful to the D.E.A.”

He was, to a point. And then he really, really wasn’t.


In 1991, shortly after authoring the D.E.A.’s definitive guide to federal drug laws, the Shulgins released PiHKAL: Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved. The self-published book was half autobiography of Shulgin and his wife Ann, half account of his decades of research into psychedelic compounds, replete with instructions on the synthesis and dosage of hundreds of psychedelics, as well as vivid trip reports by Shulgin and the small group of friends on whom he’d test his latest creations. The book was a bestseller, the timing impeccable. As more and more people plugged into the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, PiHKAL ended up on the drug resource website Erowid, introducing a new generation to the wonders of psychedelic chemistry.

The D.E.A. was not pleased. Agents raided Shulgin’s property in 1994, and he was asked to give up his Schedule I license.

“I’m not doing anything illegal,” Shulgin would often say. And, in a sense, he was right. As a 2005 New York Times profile pointed out, “Many of the drugs in his lab weren’t illegal because they hadn’t existed until he created them.”

In Shulgin’s study, awards from the D.E.A. line the walls. On his desk is a Dow Chemical Company research notebook opened to the pages that report his first experiences with MDMA in 1976. Shulgin is sometimes erroneously credited as the discoverer of MDMA, but it is more accurate to say he rediscovered its mind-altering effects, over 60 years after it was first synthesized by a Merck chemist and subsequently forgotten.

Shulgin tested all new compounds on himself first, beginning with doses several times lower than ones that would produce threshold effects, and working his way up to an active dose over weeks. With MDMA, his logs note no effect at 16 milligrams, and continue to note no effect at 25, 40, and 60 milligrams. At 81 milligrams, he writes: “53 minutes. Smooth shift into a light intoxication. Distinct, almost early-alcohol like intoxication.”

A 120 milligram dose drove the point home:

“Everyone must get to experience a profound state like this. I feel totally peaceful.I have lived all my life to get here, and I feel I have come home. I am complete. . . . I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria. I have never felt so great, or believed this to be possible.”

Shulgin’s friends in the therapy scene had been practicing LSD-assisted psychotherapy for years with impressive results, even after they were forced underground. Shulgin thought MDMA could be even more effective. For one, it was legal. For another, it didn’t make you trip balls.

‘’It didn’t have the other visual and auditory imaginative things that you often get from psychedelics,’’ he said. ‘’It opened up a person, both to other people and inner thoughts, but didn’t necessarily color it with pretty colors and strange noises.’’

Bay Area psychedelic therapist Leo Zeff was so impressed after trying MDMA in 1977 that he came out of retirement to evangelize its benefits. The so-called “Johnny Appleseed of MDMA,” Zeff trained upwards of 4,000 therapists in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, who treated an estimated 200,000 clients.

‘’Without exception,” reminisced psychiatrist George Greer to The New York Times of the 1980s glory days when MDMA was legal, “every therapist who I talked to or even heard of, every therapist who gave MDMA to a patient, was highly impressed by the results.’’

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) in pill form. (Getty Images)

Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) in pill form. (Getty Images)

But it was only a matter of time before the cat got out of the bag. Over the early 1980s, MDMA grew a reputation in underground club scenes in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Dallas. News segments detailed hospital visits of dehydrated ravers and declared that no recreational drug had ever spread so quickly. MDMA was banned by the DEA and placed on its list of Schedule I substances in 1985, at the height of Nancy Reagan and Just Say No and after an extensive public campaign about its neurotoxic effects.

That year, Rick Doblin formed MAPS to oppose the ban and support psychedelic research. Like many others in the psychedelic community, Doblin believes the medicalization of psychedelics is the key to making them legal. In fundraising talks for MAPS, he often points to the example of cannabis: once medical marijuana proliferated in several states, nationwide support for its legalization crossed a crucial threshold.

Today, nationwide support for the legalization of psychedelics hovers at a tepid 9%. No matter: after years of setbacks, false starts, and trials in every sense of the word for Doblin and MAPS, somehow, against all odds, victory is in sight.

U.S. marines undergo testing for PTSD symptoms and predisposition—including eye blink monitoring—but treatments remain mostly ineffective. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

U.S. marines undergo testing for PTSD symptoms and predisposition—including eye blink monitoring—but treatments remain mostly ineffective. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Our understanding of trauma has improved since PTSD was added to the DSM in 1980, but treatments remain lengthy and ineffective, and diagnoses have mushroomed. An estimated half-million servicemen and women returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD. An average of 22 servicemen and women commit suicide each day. With long lines at the VA, many are not receiving the treatment they need.

Despite years of anecdotal evidence from therapists and patients about MDMA’s ability to treat PTSD, MDMA remains a Schedule I drug — no medical value, high potential for abuse. What’s needed is scientific proof.

To that end, MAPS has been sponsoring clinical trials into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD since 2005, with an aim to have the FDA approve MDMA as a prescription medication. The participants include combat veterans, victims of sexual assault, firefighters and policemen, among others.

The results have been nothing short of mind-blowing. After three doses of MDMA in conjunction with therapy, patients reported a 56% decrease in symptoms. Two-thirds of participants no longer met the criteria for PTSD after the trials.

“MDMA therapy saved my life,” said Nicholas Blackston, a combat veteran who suffers from PTSD and a participant in the MDMA trials. “I regained the hope and purpose that I needed.”

The results are confirming what MDMA therapists have been saying for years: one session with MDMA can yield the sorts of breakthroughs that took other methods years to attain, if they obtained them at all.

“We are not discovering something,” said Andrew Felmar, one such early psychedelic therapist, of the new MDMA trials. “We are proving something that we very well know. There is absolutely no doubt in our minds.”

In December 2016, the F.D.A. approved the third and final phase of trials with MDMA for treatment of PTSD. Compared to the first two trials, Phase III will require hundreds more patients, which means approximately 250 new therapists to train, which will require lots and lots of money ($20 million, according to MAPS’ “optimistic” estimate). If the final trials are successful, MDMA could become a legal prescription drug as early as 2021.

It’s a development that Shulgin himself long predicted. “I’m very confident,” he said in 1995, “that there will come a time when this work will be recognized for its medical value.”

These essays originally appeared on Timeline.