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Logo of medhistThe Wellcome Trust Centre of the History of Medicine (UCL)Medical History
Med Hist. 2010 October; 54(4): 561–562.
PMCID: PMC2948715

Book Reviews

Psychedelic psychiatry: LSD from clinic to campus

Erika Dyck,  Psychedelic psychiatry: LSD from clinic to campus,  Baltimore,  Johns Hopkins University Press,  2008, pp.  xiii, 199, £19.00 (hardback  978-0-8018-8994-3). 

This book explores the history of early LSD experimentation in Saskatchewan, the unlikely birthplace of psychedelic psychiatry. In 1944, the small, primarily rural, province of Saskatchewan became the first province in Canada to elect a socialist government. The promise of health-care reform, including significant support for research, lured many medical researchers to the province. Dyck argues that the combination of progressive doctors, a high degree of professional autonomy and a supportive research environment allowed psychiatrists in Saskatchewan to innovate and take risks.

One of the people who came to Saskatchewan was Humphry Osmond, a British-trained psychiatrist, who had been working on the links between mescaline and hallucinations. Along with several colleagues, Osmond had theorized that schizophrenia might be the result of an error in the metabolization of adrenalin, which led the body to produce a substance similar to mescaline. In Saskatchewan, Osmond met a number of sympathetic researchers including Abram Hoffer, a Saskatchewan-born psychiatrist with a background in agricultural chemistry, who shared Osmond's belief that much mental illness was caused by biochemical imbalances. Osmond, Hoffer and others began their research with mescaline but quickly changed to the more readily available and potent LSD. They began by using the drug themselves and cataloguing their reactions. Eventually, they tested it on friends, family members, health-care workers, students and members of a Mental Health committee at the Regina Chamber of Commerce. Their studies showed that LSD produced intense, but usually pleasurable hallucinations, a profound feeling of spiritual connection, even among non-believers, as well as difficulties with time perception and problems organizing and communicating thoughts.

They compared these experiences with autobiographical experiences of mental illness and were struck by the similarities. Eventually, they gave LSD to recovered schizophrenics and asked them to compare the experience of LSD and their illness. By the late 1950s, Osmond and Hoffer began presenting the results of their work, arguing their studies showed that schizophrenia was the result of a biochemical imbalance. Dyck concludes that their work achieved little recognition outside Saskatchewan, in part because of their opposition to controlled clinical trials, which were then becoming the gold standard in psychopharmacology. Their failure to get their research more widely noticed made me wonder if their relative isolation made it difficult for them to keep up with a rapidly developing field, and if their research was the weaker for it, but Dyck focuses her attention on Osmond and Hoffer's belief that research which took into account subjective (and often spiritual) experiences could produce better results for patients.

Much of Osmond and Hoffer's therapeutic work with LSD focused on alcoholism. They believed that LSD's power to effect personal transformation, especially spiritual growth, made it an excellent treatment tool. Supported by the local Alcoholics Anonymous, which also stressed the importance of spiritual growth, they treated hundreds of patients. But by the late 1960s, the growing black market in LSD, widespread use of the drug by young people, and gruesome media tales of the dangers of LSD made it difficult to continue their research.

This book will be of interest to anyone in the history of psychiatry, the history of psychotropic drugs, and the history of medical research. The focus on Saskatchewan provides a valuable case study of how national and provincial politics affects research. That said, I wish that Dyck had more often broadened her focus beyond Osmond and Hoffer to explain what other researchers were doing with LSD at the same time. Hopefully, future scholars will take Dyck's careful and insightful attention to the local and apply it to LSD research in other places.

Articles from Medical History are provided here courtesy of Cambridge University Press