April 30, 2008

Albert Hoffman, Father of LSD, Takes the Big Trip

Albert Hoffman, the Swiss scientist who discovered LSD, has passed away in Basel at the age of 102.

Hoffman's discovery of the potent psychotropic drug came while investigating the biochemistry of the ascomycetous fungus Claviceps purpurea, a pathogen of grasses. It was one of history's classic accidents, really. Hoffman knew that C. purpurea synthesized a number of alkaloids and those compounds were already known to be useful in medicine when Hoffman isolated one of them, D-lysergic acid, and from that produced the first ever batch of lysergic acid diethylamide, in 1938. In a moment of fateful laboratory sloppiness, some of his product got on his fingers and thereafter into his bloodstream purely by accident. While it's not the most glamorous of hypotheses about how this happened, one urban legend suggests that this might have occurred because he was picking his nose.

Albert Hoffman dies at 102However it happened, Hoffman was floored by the experience and duly noted the effects. The potent mind-altering effects later targeted the drug as a potential treatment for some mental disorders and experiments were carried out for several years before the US counterculture of the 1960's got wind of the stuff, largely through the efforts of a wacky little Harvard psychologist named Timothy Leary (who was also a Massachusetts native, by the way, and started his university education at Worcester's own College of the Holy Cross). For better or for worse, Hoffman's discovery changed American and arguably all of Western culture thereafter. The recreational use and abuse of LSD led to it being made illegal in the US in 1966.

Unlike Leary, Hoffman wasn't a flamboyant character. He eventually became head of the research department of Sandoz pharmaceuticals and wrote a book about LSD, LSD, My Problem Child. He believed all his life that the drug could be used as a treatment for mental and emotional diseases — and he was probably right, although its doubtful that it will ever be accepted for such applications. Hoffman's "oops" of 1938 spawned events that were far beyond anything that Hoffman himself would have advocated for his "problem child."

If nothing else, Hoffman's claim to fame stands as testament to the accidents that happen in the course of scientific research that have the power to radically transform the world.

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