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Psychedelic Roots: Setting a Strong Foundation

in this article
  • Introduction
  • Early experimentation after WWII
  • Pioneering work of Albert Hofmann and other key figures
  • Hofmann’s discovery of LSD
  • Psychedelics as treatment and therapy
  • Mind-expansion and healing
  • The lure of the mystical
  • The creation of psychedelic culture
  • Paving a way for the future
Psychedelic substances have been extremely influential on art, music and culture.


This article is the first part in an extended series on the history of psychedelics. Historian Nicolas Lewkowicz explores the early foundations for psychedelic research that were established in the mid-20th century and some of psychedelia’s founding figures.

As 21st-century psychonauts, we need to know where we came from to know where we are going. Although the current psychedelic renaissance has been unfolding for just a few years, the origins of psychedelic therapy and research go back much further into the mid-20th century.

Early experimentation after WWII

The first uses of psychedelics for therapeutic purposes began in the early 1950s. Across Europe and the United States, people were severely traumatized in response to the horrors of World War Two. There was also a widespread environment of fear due to the Cold War tensions between the USA and the USSR, leading to high levels of fear and anxiety.

The Cold War created a sense of apprehension about the future and contributed to higher rates of anxiety and depression.

These social and political fears sparked a widespread search for coping mechanisms in a volatile social space. With the cultural revolution of the 1960s, people also began to question traditional societal norms. The questions and experimentation of the age prompted a drive for self-awareness that motivated the search for an expansion of consciousness.

Pioneering work of Albert Hofmann and other key figures

During the 1950s, psychedelic therapy began its foundational and pioneering work thanks to researchers like Albert Hofmann, John Smythies, Ronald Sandison and Humphry Osmond. Although they worked within different fields, these ground-breaking pioneers were united through their interest in finding new treatments for addiction and mental illness.

The main rationale for early psychedelic research was that using psychedelic substances, like LSD and mescaline, could correct the chemical imbalances that contribute to addiction and mental illness. We now have increasing empirical evidence that this is true. For instance, a 2020 study found that psilocybin can provide effective relief for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and treatment-resistant depression, respectively.” [1] Additionally, there is also a growing body of evidence about the potential of psychedelics for treating substance abuse. [2]

Hofmann’s discovery of LSD

In this early era, several key figures paved the way for later research. One of the most significant contributors from this era is Albert Hofmann, who synthesized LSD in the late 1930s. Hofmann accidentally discovered LSD in the lab but came to regard the psychedelic experience in otherworldly terms. Although Hofmann was committed to empirical science, he came to believe that it was not just the body and the mind that were being rewired due to the use of psychedelics. Hofmann claimed that there was also a healing of the soul taking place due to that experience [3]. In his autobiography, LSD—My Problem Child, Hofmann states an early psychedelic creed:

“We shall have to shift from the materialistic, dualistic belief that people and their environment are separate, toward a new consciousness of an all-encompassing reality, which embraces the experiencing ego, a reality in which people feel their oneness with animate nature and all of creation.” [4]

Psychedelics as treatment and therapy

Hofmann was not the only person to become intrigued by the healing potential of psychedelics. Some in the medical profession began to take psychedelics seriously in the 1950s. In his clinical work at St. George’s Hospital, London, John Smythies observed the possibility that schizophrenia might be a metabolic abnormality that generated a substance in the brain that was chemically similar to mescaline. This discovery opened the path for a neuropharmaceutical treatment of addiction. Smythies’s work paved the way for the idea that psychedelics are crucial for identifying, understanding, and treating a wide range of mental disorders.

Ronald Sandison was another important figure in the use of psychedelics for psychotherapeutic purposes. In the early 1950s, after meeting with Albert Hofmann, Sandison offered LSD to people who were not responding to treatment of depression and neurosis [5]. Sandison also opened the first LSD unit at a British hospital, which created immense enthusiasm in the medical profession in various parts of the world.

Ronald Sandison performed groundbreaking work in his laboratory.

Mind-expansion and healing

Humphry Osmond played a pivotal role in establishing a research culture in the field of psychedelics. Osmond first coined the term “psychedelics” in order to refer to substances that could induce creative and/or soothing manifestations for the mind. “Psychedelic” is a term of Greek origin, combining the words psyche (mind) and delein (to manifest). 

As part of his work at the Weyburn Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada, Osmond experimented with psychedelics with mental illness patients. Osmond claimed that schizophrenia arose from distortions in the perception of the reality experienced by people afflicted with this illness. Accordingly, he theorized that psychedelics had the potential to be used as a mind-expanding vehicle for redressing the chemical imbalances that gave rise to that perceptual distortion. 

Osmond’s work at Weyburn mental Hospital was crucial in understanding how psychedelics impact the brain of people with mental illness.

The lure of the mystical

Interestingly, as in the case of Albert Hofmann, Humphry Osmond regarded psychedelics as a tool to reach a mystical experience, as well as to treat mental disorders. He recognized that the substances had the potential of inducing a complete change in how individuals saw themselves. Osmond corresponded with Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World and an important literary figure of the era. Huxley referred to the experience of psychedelics as a means to open the doors of perception and broaden the minds of people who had acquired a rigid way of thinking due to the frightening, repressive environment of the early Cold War period. In The Doors of Perception, Huxley speaks of the transformative potential of mystical experiences facilitated through psychedelics:

“To be enlightened is to be aware, always, of total reality in its immanent otherness – to be aware of it and yet remain in a condition to survive as an animal. Our goal is to discover that we have always been where we ought to be..” [6]

In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley described his experiences with psychedelics.

The creation of psychedelic culture

Much of the work done on psychedelics in the 1950s was experimental and pioneering. Sadly, towards the end of the decade it became apparent that the medical establishment would not be willing to support widespread research on the use of psychedelic for psychotherapeutic purposes.

Although the crackdown on psychedelics would not begin until the early 1970s, by the end of the 1950s the mainstream medical community had already begun to frown upon the use of psychedelics due to the way in which it clashed with the for-profit pharmaceutical industry.

Paving a way for the future

The pioneering work undertaken in the 1950s provided a crucial stepping stone for the creation of a line of research into psychedelics, as well as the stirrings of psychedelic culture. The work of Hofmann, Smythies, Sandison and Osmond and others broke ground for later research and helped establish psychedelics as an instrument that could serve to address the alienation of the Western mind.

Next week’s article will continue exploring psychedelic history as we take a closer look at Albert Hofmann, his accidental discovery of LSD, and the effects of psychedelics on his life, work, and ongoing legacy. 

Nicolas Lewkowicz | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective

Nicolas is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to David via email at blog@chemical-collective.com

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1 year ago

Very interesting, thanks for The article!

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