Life

Friday 20 September 2019

Swiss role: Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD

A portrait of late Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman Packages is seen on a collection of LSD blotting paper shown during an exhibition entitled
A portrait of late Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman Packages is seen on a collection of LSD blotting paper shown during an exhibition entitled "LSD, the 75 Years of a Problem Child" at the Swiss National Library on September 21, 2018 in Bern. - Lysergic acid d
The discoverer of the drug Lysergic Acid Diethlyamide, or LSD, Dr Albert Hofmann

LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by a 32-year-old Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann. The Sandoz Pharmaceuticals (now Novartis) employee was working with ergot, a parasitic fungus that grows on rye, when he discovered lysergic acid diethylamide.

Hofmann was searching for a drug that might stimulate circulation and breathing but his new compound "aroused no special interest" among his colleagues in Sandoz and testing was soon abandoned.

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The chemist moved on to new research but the potential of LSD-25 - so called because it was the 25th compound that the chemist had derived from ergot - continued to intrigue him.

Five years later, acting on a "peculiar presentiment", he set about synthesising another batch for testing. Hofmann was in the final stages of this process when he began to "feel affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness".

He left the laboratory and headed for home where he "sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterised by an extremely stimulated imagination" and "perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors".

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The discoverer of the drug Lysergic Acid Diethlyamide, or LSD, Dr Albert Hofmann

Three days later, on 19 April 1943, Hofmann (above) intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD. When the effects kicked in 40 minutes later, he asked his laboratory assistant to escort him home. Later that evening, his wife, who had been visiting her family in Lucerne, arrived home in a panic. Somebody had telephoned to tell her that her husband was "suffering a mysterious breakdown". That someone was more than likely their next-door neighbour who, according to Hofmann's lab notes, had become a "malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask".

It was a terrifying experience but it didn't deter him from his research. Hofmann continued to self-experiment with LSD and began to recognise - and later champion - the drug's psychotherapeutic potential. The chemist believed that LSD could be profoundly transformative, so long as it was prescribed by psychiatrists in a safe and controlled environment.

It is often claimed that Hofmann followed a life-long microdosing regime. However, with no lab notes to back up this story, we'll have to write it off as apocryphal.

What we do know for sure is that he recognised the potential of smaller doses, and once told a journalist that a dose of 25 micrograms or thereabouts "could be useful as a euphoriant or antidepressant".

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