Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD and thereby gave the psychedelic generation the pharmaceutical vehicle to turn on, tune in and drop out, has died this morning at his home in Basel of a heart attack. He was 102.
Hofmann also identified and synthesized the active ingredients of peyote mushrooms and a Mexican psychoactive plant called ololiuqui and developed at least three related, non-psychoactive compounds that became widely used in medicine.
Those other feats would have been little remembered, however, had he not accidentally gotten a trace amount of an experimental compound called lysergic acid diethylamide on his fingertips and taken the world’s first acid trip.
Hofmann was a talented synthetic chemist working in the Basel research center of Sandoz Laboratories — now Novartis — in the 1930s when he began studying the chemistry of ergot, the common name for a fungus that grows on rye, barley and certain other plants. Although ergot is poisonous, midwives had used a crude extract for centuries to induce labor in pregnant women.
In the early 1930s, American researchers had identified the primary active ingredient of ergot, a chemical called lysergic acid. Hofmann devised a technique to make a series of derivatives of lysergic acid called amides and began systematically looking for medically useful compounds.
The twenty-fifth compound he synthesized, in 1938, was lysergic acid diethylamide (in German, lyserg-saure-diathylamid), or LSD-25. Because this compound had a chemical structure similar to an existing drug called Coramine, Hofmann had hoped that it would be a stimulant for the respiratory and circulatory systems.
Prompted by what Hofmann later described as a “peculiar presentiment” that LSD-25 might have properties other than those established in the first investigations, he decided to look at it again.
On Friday afternoon, April 16, 1943, Hofmann had just completed synthesizing a new batch when, he subsequently wrote his supervisor, “I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with slight dizziness.
“At home, I lay down and sank into a not-unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours, this condition faded away.”
The following Monday, he took what he considered to be an extremely small dose of LSD, so small that a similar dose of even the most powerful toxin known at the time would have had little or no effect. He had planned to gradually increase the dosage, but instead was surprised to encounter the first bad acid trip.
Feeling bad, he asked his laboratory assistant to accompany him home on his bicycle, no cars being available because of wartime restrictions. During the trip, “I had the feeling that I could not move from the spot. I was cycling, cycling, but the time seemed to stand still.”
By the time they reached his home, its furnishings had transformed themselves into terrifying objects.
“Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms,” he wrote in his autobiography, “LSD — My Problem Child.” “They were in constant motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door [became] a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask.”
After about six hours, the experience began to change into a pleasant one. “After some time, with my eyes closed, I began to enjoy this wonderful play of colors and forms, which it really was a pleasure to observe. Then I went to sleep and the next day I was fine. I felt quite fresh, like a newborn.”
That day, April 19, has subsequently been celebrated by LSD proponents as “Bicycle Day.”