By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Albert Hofmann, 102, a Swiss chemist and accidental father of LSD who came to view the much-vilified and abused hallucinogen he discovered in 1938 as his "problem child," died April 29 at his home in Burg, a village near Basel, Switzerland, after a heart attack.
His death was confirmed by Rick Doblin, the Boston-based founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit pharmaceutical company developing LSD and other psychedelics for prescription medicines.
Lysergic acid diethylamide, thousands of times stronger than mescaline, can give its user an experience often described as psychedelic -- a kaleidoscopic twirling of the mind pulsating with color and movement.
After its discovery, LSD was viewed as a wonder drug with the potential to treat problems including schizophrenia and alcoholism. For the latter, some held the theory that chronic drinkers quit only after experiencing the hallucinations of delirium tremens.
LSD attracted many prominent advocates. They included Aldous Huxley, author of "Brave New World," and psychologist Timothy Leary, who saw the drug as a potent way for people to live up to his 1960s counterculture motto: "Turn on, tune in, drop out."
The CIA was also widely reported to have used LSD in experiments on unwitting subjects. This, and greater recreational use that caused some fatal overdoses, led to the widespread condemnation of the drug and, by the early 1970s, its criminalization. As a result, research permission and funding from state and federal agencies was terminated.
In Dr. Hofmann's opinion, outlawing LSD made its use even more attractive to young people and diminished any safeguards. He spoke of many hippies stopping by his home on the way to their spiritual quest, hoping to score from his "secret stash."
Dr. Hofmann came across LSD while working on medicinal uses of a fungus to act as a circulatory heart-lung stimulant. His first LSD "trip" occurred in 1943, a troubling experience that led him to write in his journal, "A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind and soul."
Dr. Hofmann remained wary of LSD's recreational uses as well as its portrayal in the media.
"I was not surprised that it became a ritual drug in the youth anti-establishment movement, but I was shocked by irresponsible use that resulted in mental catastrophes," he told Playboy magazine in 2006. "That's what gave the health authorities a pretext for totally prohibiting its production, possession and use."
Albert Hofmann was born Jan. 11, 1906, in Baden, Switzerland. He was the oldest of four children, and after his father, a toolmaker, fell seriously ill, he was forced as a teenager to seek a commercial apprenticeship to support the family.
While learning a trade, he continued his private schooling with financial help from his godfather. In 1930, he received a doctorate from the University of Zurich, where he studied the chemistry of plants and animals, and he joined the pharmaceutical-chemical firm Sandoz (now Novartis) in Basel.
Among his early accomplishments was the synthesis of an alkaloid that prompted uterine contractions to stop postpartum bleeding.
In 1938, he was exploring a circulatory heart-lung stimulant when he happened on LSD-25 while conducting purification and crystallization experiments on the fungus ergot, which grows on rye. Ergot had been long used to induce childbirth.
Lysergic acid is an active part of therapeutically essential ergot alkaloids, and Dr. Hofmann began combining it with other molecules for his research.
At the time, LSD showed little effect on lab animals besides some agitation. It was shelved for five years until he, on a hunch, repeated the experiment to help him with another medical study.
Having unknowingly absorbed some of the compound, he experienced a dizzying sensation that also made him restless.
He wrote in a journal about this first known encounter: "At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination.
"In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away."
Three days later, April 19, he bicycled home after consuming 250 micrograms of LSD in a now-famous "trip" that has become known as Bicycle Day. The route he took home was later named in his honor.
That time, he said, he felt some of the darker symptoms of the drug: a feeling of impending death, of possession by the devil, of feeling violently threatened by family and neighbors. Above all, he wrote, "I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane."
As he continued to study the drug, Dr. Hofmann struck up a correspondence with German novelist Ernst Junger, who had experimented with mescaline. At Dr. Hofmann's home in 1951, the scientist administered .05 of a milligram of LSD to Junger and himself as they were surrounded by violet roses, Japanese incense and a Mozart concerto for flute and harp.
"Ernst Junger enjoyed the color display of oriental images," he later wrote. "I was on a trip among Berber tribes in North Africa, saw colored caravans and lush oases."
Further controlled experimentation by University of Zurich scientists on humans subjects -- some with psychiatric problems -- showed a similar calming reaction. This led Sandoz to manufacture LSD under the trade name Delysid by the late 1940s.
It entered the U.S. market and, during the next two decades, LSD was intensely researched as a drug to treat all manner of emotional and addictive disorders. Humphry F. Osmond, a British-born psychiatrist, introduced the word "psychedelic" to describe the effects of mescaline and LSD while corresponding with Huxley in 1956.
Dr. Hofmann wrote in a 1980 book, "LSD, My Problem Child," that LSD brought him the "same happiness and gratification that any pharmaceutical chemist would feel on learning that a substance he or she produced might possibly develop into a valuable medicament."
But he said he was increasingly disturbed by a "huge wave of an inebriant mania that began to spread over the Western world, above all the United States, at the end of the 1950s. . . . The more [LSD's] use as an inebriant was disseminated, bringing an upsurge in the number of untoward incidents caused by careless, medically unsupervised use, the more LSD became a problem child for me and for the Sandoz firm."
He described meeting Leary in September 1971 at a railway station snack bar in Lausanne; Leary was living in Switzerland. He said they had a cordial but strong exchange of words in which Dr. Hofmann criticized Leary's self-promotion and his "propagation of LSD use" among impressionable young people.
Dr. Hofmann said that Leary said that American teenagers "with regard to information and life experience, were comparable to adult Europeans. . . . For that reason, he deemed the LSD experience significant, useful, and enriching, even for people still very young in years."
Dr. Hofmann headed the research department for natural medicines at Sandoz before retiring in 1971. At the company in the 1950s and 1960s, he discovered and named many of the active hallucinogenic ingredients in Mexican "magic mushrooms," including psilocybin and psilocin. He was credited with important developments in medications for geriatric and gynecological uses as well as drugs to control blood pressure.
He was a member of the Nobel Prize Committee and a fellow of the World Academy of Sciences. He was a prolific writer of scientific articles and the author of several books, many of which tried to bind the scientific with the spiritual. In particular, he denounced the demonization of LSD after hippies and societal dropouts seemed to have monopolized the media's focus.
In his 1989 book "Insight Outlook," he wrote that LSD taken by "mentally stable persons in the right set and setting" was suited to the Western world, which he saw rife with "materialism, estrangement from nature, . . . [and] the missing of a sense-making philosophical fundamentalness of life."
His 100th birthday was celebrated in Basel as a referendum on his greatest discovery. He attended the conference, "LSD: Problem Child and Wonder Drug," and told one reporter that it was his daily diet of a raw egg that kept him spry, not, as many LSD enthusiasts suspected, his long-ago experiments.
His wife of more than 70 years, Anita Hofmann, died in December. One son died years earlier.
Survivors include three children.