Hofmann and the Discovery of LSD

Image from photo insert, LSD: My Problem Child by Albert Hofmann, M. D. (2009 edition): Dr. Hofmann in his laboratory holding a model of the molecular structure of LSD- 25.M

While tripping, I reviewed the events surrounding the discovery of LSD. In 1938, Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, was working for Sandoz, a pharmaceutical company. Hofmann's assignment was to synthesize a series of derivatives of ergot, a fungus growing on wheat- in other words, a mushroom. Sandoz was looking for compounds that induced muscular contractions. Ergot has a long history of human use. For thousands of years perhaps, midwives and wise women have used ergot for its ability to induce labor. But ergot was also the source of Saint Vitus' Dance, a violent disease causing descents into madness and death that struck like a plague when a village or region unsuspectedly ate bread made from ergot-infected wheat. In other words, like the history of LSD itself, ergot's interaction with humanity had positive and negative aspects. LSD and ergot were ambiguous tools.
Lysergic acid diethylamide was LSD- 25, the twenty-fifth in a series of syntheses that Hofmann made from ergot. The compound was tested on animals. It seemed to have no useful effects, and it was shelved, along with thousands of other useless compounds, seemingly permanently. Hofmann, however, could not forget this particular chemical. He had dreams about it and what he recalled as "a peculiar presentiment." Something about the molecular structure compelled him to remake it-the only time he had resynthesized a compound that showed no promise. Five years later, in 1943, he made a new batch of LSD-25 in his laboratory in Basel. Somehow, he does not know how it happened, he either ingested a small amount of the substance or got some on his skin, and he was propelled on the first acid trip. Lying on his couch, he watched a "stream of fantastic images of extraordinary plasticity and vividness and accompanied by an intense kaleidoscopic play of colors." He assumed he had gone mad. A few days later, he decided to intentionally test LSD's psychopharmacological properties and ingested what he thought would be a minute amount- too little to affect him- but was, in fact, a whopping does: 20 micrograms. After a now-legendary bicycle ride back to his home, he found himself hovering on his ceiling, staring down at his own body, convinced he had died.
Why would a chemist go back and resynthesize, five years after the fact, one of thousands of compounds he had made, one that his company had already dismissed as having no value? And how strange that this would happen in 1943, in the centre of Europe, as the Nazis geared up for the systematic deployment of the Final Solution. Most peculiar, perhaps, is that the discovery of LSD would happen only a year after nuclear fission was demonstrated, and as the first atomic bombs went into development.

- pp. 191- 192, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism by Daniel Pinchbeck (2002)

Dr. Albert Hofmann, My Problem Child, LSD-25
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