On the afternoon of April 19th, 1943, the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann dropped acid, and rode his bike home. Hofmann, who worked in the pharmaceutical department of Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, had first synthesized LSD in 1938 while trying to create a stimulant to treat respiratory and circulatory problems. He had no idea the compound had psychedelic effects, and it yielded no visible results when tested on sedated animals, so he set it aside.
Five years later, Hofmann decided to revisit his creation. On April 16th, 1943, he synthesized another batch of LSD. This time, he accidentally absorbed a tiny amount into his skin, and sank into “a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination.” He decided to experiment on himself with an intentional dose to confirm the compound’s effects, and at 4:20pm on April 19th, he ingested 250 micrograms of the chemical. He soon realized that the trip was going to be intense, and asked his assistant to help him get home. Wartime restrictions prohibited cars on the streets of Basel, so they had to bike — which is why April 19th is now known around the world as Bicycle Day.
With that infamous trippy ride, Hofmann became the scientist-godfather of psychedelics, a term coined by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond based on the Greek words for “mind-revealing”. Journalist John Horgan wrote for Scientific American that Hofmann believed when properly used, psychedelics could stimulate the “inborn faculty of visionary experience” that we all possess as children, and lose as we grow up.
Hofmann had a complex relationship with the field he helped create, dubbing LSD his “problem child” in the book he wrote about his contributions to psychedelic chemistry. He also studied magic mushrooms, and was the first to isolate, synthesize, and name the psychedelic compounds psilocybin and psilocin. He told Horgan about a psilocybin trip he’d taken during which he ended up in a ghost town deep inside the earth. “Nobody was there,” Hofmann said. “I had the feeling of absolute loneliness, absolute loneliness. A terrible feeling!” When he came back to this plane and found himself with friends again, Hofmann felt ecstatic. He told Horgan, in his heavy Swiss accent, “I had feeling of being reborn! To see now again! And see what wonderful life we have here!”
The quest to feel reborn is especially compelling in the era of COVID-19 and self-isolation. The psychedelics journal DoubleBlind recently published an article on using quarantine as a time for inner exploration and self-renewal. DoubleBlind co-founder Madison Margolin says that, in an alternate COVID-less universe, she’d be observing Bicycle Day at a psychedelic seder. “We were planning to partner with Disco Dining Club to celebrate both Bicycle Day and Passover.” Instead, Margolin says, DoubleBlind is co-hosting a free online festival with SPORE (the Society for Psychedelic Outreach, Reform, and Education) on April 19th to support coronavirus aid efforts, “celebrating reciprocity and our connection with Earth and each other,” starting at 8:45 a.m. PST.
Margolin has some
Exactly 71 years ago, April 19, 1943, Albert Hofmann, a chemist for Sandoz, in Basel, Switzerland, ingested a minute amount—just 250 micrograms–of a compound derived from the ergot fungus. He soon felt so disoriented that he rode his bicycle home, where he experienced all the heavenly and hellish effects of lysergic acid diethylamide.
Psychedelic enthusiasts now commemorate Hofmann’s discovery of LSD’s effects every April 19, a.k.a. “Bicycle Day. ” To celebrate this Bicycle Day, I’d like to describe one of the strangest trips of my life, which took place in Basel and involved (sort of) Hofmann.
In 1999, while, researching a book on mysticism, I flew to Basel to attend “Worlds of Consciousness,” a leading forum for scientists studying altered states, especially drug-induced states. The meeting, held in a convention center within walking distance of my hotel, offered two divergent perspectives of hallucinogens. In the convention center’s lobby, vendors peddled visionary books, music and art, including drawings, by Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, of pouty-lipped, warhead-breasted, cybernetic vixens transmogrified by titanic psychic forces.
Beside this artistic evocation of psychedelic visions, a display of “scientific” posters—with titles like “Psychoneurophysiology of Personalized Regression and Experiential Imaginary Therapy”–seemed parodically dry. The meeting’s schizoid character was reflected in its speakers, too. One group sported hippy-ish threads and extolled altered states in subjective, even poetic language. The other wore jackets and ties and employed clinical, objective rhetoric.
The meeting’s guest of honor was a stooped, white-haired man with fierce, Churchillian mien: Albert Hofmann. His contributions to psychedelic chemistry extended beyond LSD. In the 1950s, he analyzed Psilocybe cubensis, a “magic mushroom” consumed by Indians in Mexico, and deduced that its primary active ingredient is psilocybin. Hofmann’s research inspired other scientists around the world to investigate LSD, psilocybin and similar compounds, which psychiatrist Humphry Osmond dubbed psychedelic, based on the Greek words for “mind-revealing.”
At 93, Hofmann still avidly followed the field he helped create. One day we spoke during the lunch break, and Hofmann, in halting, heavily accented English, vigorously defended LSD, which he called his “problem child.” He blamed Harvard-psychologist-turned-counterculture-guru Timothy Leary for giving LSD such a bad reputation.
“I had this discussion with him,” Hofmann told me. “I said, ‘Oh, you should not tell everybody, even the children, “Take LSD! Take LSD!”'” LSD “can hurt you, it can disturb you,” Hofmann said, “it can make you crazy.” But properly used, psychedelics stimulate the “inborn faculty of visionary experience” that we all possess as children but lose as we mature.
Hofmann recalled a psilocybin trip during which he ended up in a ghost town deep inside the earth. “Nobody was there. I had the feeling of absolute loneliness, absolute loneliness. A terrible feeling!” When he emerged from this nightmare and found himself with friends again, he felt ecstatic. “I had feeling of being reborn! To see now again! And see what wonderful life we have here!” The gruff old man stared above my head, his eyes gleaming, as if born again this very