I’m sure that the many TNN readers who were only just recovering from their bicycle day celebrations on the 19th were shocked to learn of the death, on Tuesday, of Albert Hofmann. Dr. Hofmann succumbed to a heart attack at his home in his native Switzerland at the age of 102. His death has received fairly prominent notice, as well it should. In his own quiet and inadvertent way, Dr. Hofmann was the cause of a great deal of mischief and pain in the world at just about the time President Nixon was entering the White House.
On a balmy April afternoon in 1943, Dr. Hofmann —then a very young research chemist at the Sandoz pharmaceutical labs in Basel— deliberately took a significant dose of a compound he had recently discovered; he wanted to explore the curiously euphoric and hallucinogenic results that an earlier accidental ingestion had triggered. So, with 250 micrograms of what would soon become known as LSD coursing through his system, Dr. Hofmann got on his bicycle and rode home. That day has ever since been celebrated by the curiously persistent coterie of LSD cultists; the two high holy days of the stoners’ calendar —4/19 and 4/20— are thus conveniently contiguous.
That fateful bike ride, however, unlike his earlier unsuspecting experiment, was no walk in the park. This time he felt the weight of impending death, the possibility of demonic possession, and the onset of paranoid suspicions regarding friends and family. He wrote, “I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane.” Naturally, he decided to try it again. And again.
In 1951 he conducted what passed in Hofmannland for a controlled experiment. Having arranged a comforting environment of violet roses, Japanese incense, and a Mozart harp concerto shimmering in the background, he administered doses of .05 of a milligram to a novelist friend and himself. The novelist enjoyed an oriental light show inside his cranium; and Dr. Hofmann wrote “I was on a trip among Berber tribes in North Africa, saw colored caravans and lush oases.”
Dr. Hofmann began studying other substances with ritual and shamanic aspects in different cultures. He became the first person to produce synthetic psilocybin from the Mexican mushroom Psilocybe mexicana —the ingredient that packs the magic into magic mushrooms.
Despite the subjective and voluptuary nature of some of his research, Dr. Hofmann intended his discoveries to be applied to serious medical and psychiatric uses. He also envisaged a more grandiose application that would help counter the modern tendencies towards “materialism, alienation from nature through industrialization and increasing urbanization, lack of satisfaction in professional employment in a mechanized, lifeless working world, ennui and purposelessness in wealthy, saturated society, and lack of a religious, nurturing, and meaningful philosophical foundation of life”.
To be fair, he was appalled by the casual and self-indulgent uses to which his discovery was soon put —- thanks, first, to the activities of Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, and then to the star-making machinery behind many popular rock and roll bands.
The first time Dr. Hofmann met Dr. Leary, in a railroad snack bar in Lausanne in 1971, he taxed the louche Harvard psychologist for having taken the drug irresponsibly public and getting it banned and outlawed. Leary rejected any reproach because he said that American teenagers “with regard to information and life experience, were comparable to adult Europeans” and thus able to make up their own minds.
Thirty-eight years ago this month, the LSD culture almost made it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue through the highly unlikely agency of Tricia Nixon. Tricia invited alumnae of Finch College, her New York alma mater, to have tea at the White House. Among the invitees was Grace Wing, who had attended Finch for two years before transferring to the University of Miami. Now, as “Grace Slick”, she had become the lead singer of the San Francisco rock group Jefferson Airplane, and one of the avatars of the national drug culture.
A friend of the recently overdosed Janis Joplin, and herself soon to be a recovering addict, at the time Ms. Slick apparently thought it would be amusing to spike the President’s tea (or, in some versions, the punch bowl) with LSD. The unlikelihood of the President actually attending the event, much less standing around holding a cup of tea, apparently didn’t occur to her perfervid imagination.
An interviewer recorded Ms. Slick’s recounting of the event:
So I get an invitation to the White House and I call up Abbie Hoffman and say [Sing-songy] “Guess what I have….I’ve got an invitation to the White House.” So I put 600 mics of acid under a long fingernail I had for cocaine, and we go and we’re standing in line, and the security guard comes up to me and says, “I’m sorry you can’t go in. You’re a security risk.” And I go, “What?!” And he says, “You’re on the FBI list.” And I go, “What?!?!” And I found out that the members of Jefferson Airplane were on a list because of “suspect lyrics.”
They didn’t know why I was a security threat, but they were right.
The event clearly became inflated with telling. In some versions, Ms. Slick fancied that she was recognized by the Secret Service agents and refused entrance; in other versions, it was the lyrics to one of her songs that had put her on some FBI “list”. (In fact, the lyrics, to “Mexico”, were, by the standards of the time, almost anodyne: “But Mexico is under the thumb/ Of a man we call Richard/ And he’s come to call himself king/ But he’s a small-headed man/ And he doesn’t know a thing/ About how to deal for you.”) It seems more likely —if, in fact, they ever even made it to the Northwest Gate; the whole thing could be an urban legend— that the demeanor and theatrics of the druggy duo were what attracted the attention.
Perhaps consumption of LSD induces (in addition to the cranial light shows and the colorful berber caravans) fantasies involving US Presidents and tea. (This is an area of research that Dr. Hofmann failed to pursue.) In Boston yesterday, a US District Court in Boston held a preliminary hearing over Yoko Ono’s claim to copyright ownership of several hours of “home movies” in which, among many other activities and conversations, Ms. Ono and her then husband, Beatle John Lennon, discussed spiking President Nixon’s tea with LSD.
Dr. Hofmann’s long and varied life has been well served by some of his varied obituarists. The accounts in The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the London Telegraph each take a different and interesting approach.