LSD goes to Harvard


Because the CIA had asserted LSD as hazardous and physicians believed it to mimic schizophrenia, there was a slight lag in its discovery as a “fun” drug and subsequent exposure to the public.  Dr. Sidney Cohen was among the first in America to document his experience as a “heavenly inner quietude” on October 12, 1955.[1]  This is a crucial point in LSD’s history because Cohen, who would serve as the first director of the Division of Narcotic Abuse and Drug Addiction under President Richard Nixon in 1968, initially promoted its use outside of a lab by intellectuals.  Cohen began research at UCLA, however, upon receiving negative reactions from students on their experiences with LSD he turned to fellow intellectuals Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley hoping for more inciteful feedback.[2]  This is truly where LSD began to lose its foothold as a potentially beneficial drug to become a part of the war on drugs.    

The word intellectual is important here because such an occupation, as that of Huxley, did not mean medically or even scientifically trained.  Huxley and Heard were brilliant writers, with Huxley having already experimented with the psychedelic mescaline in 1953 inspiring his 1954 book “The Doors of Perception”.[3]  Albert M. Hubbard, who would be present for Huxeley’s first LSD trip, was the first to relate the experience to mysticism. Because LSD was no longer scientifically being studied, its effects that once mimicked schizophrenia were now being said to mimic religious or spiritual experience.[4]

“The sober certainty of waking bliss” are the last words of this video of Gerald Heard discussing the experience of LSD. This video is from 1956 and the interviewer is Dr. Sidney Cohen.

In 1960 two Harvard professors named Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Baba Ram Dass) began the Harvard Psilocybin Project to better understand personality and social relationships while under the hallucinogen.[5]  In just two years the project would come under scrutiny due to the lax methodology and abuse of LSD as both the school’s faculty and students had begun to use it outside of the purpose of research.  In 1963 Leary, Alpert and the project were all let go of following the administration of LSD to undergrads and from here the drug would leave the fields of medicine and academia. 

[1] Steven J. Novak, “LSD before Leary: Sidney Cohen’s Critique of 1950s Psychedelic Drug Research,” Isis 88, no. 1 (1997): 92.

[2] Novak, 93.

[3] Steven J. Novak, “LSD before Leary: Sidney Cohen’s Critique of 1950s Psychedelic Drug Research,” Isis 88, no. 1 (1997): 94.

[4] “Cohen (Sidney) Collection,” accessed October 12, 2021,

[5] “Timothy Leary,” accessed November 3, 2021,