LSD & the Counterculture

Turn on, Tune In, Drop out

Philosophy of Timothy Leary
“I inhaled because you couldn’t fail to inhale. LSD its aura if not its substance was a component of the air we breathed. This hallucinogen infused the exhalations of musicians, philosophers, advertisers and activists.” – Edward Rothstein, American critic.

In September of 1965 Dr. Max Rinkel, who had been the first doctor to promote LSD in America, began treating multiple students on Harvard’s campus for side effects of LSD.[1]  By this time the drug had become easily obtainable on the streets with effects that altered perception in a volatile reality.[2]  This reality was a result of a division in America over societal expectations, involvement in the Vietnam War, racial tensions and a break away from conservative values by a counterculture movement.

The move of LSD away from research came from both the CIA’s lack of interest in it as a weapon and the 1968 Drug Abuse Control Amendments illegalization of it.[3]  After Leary and Alpert left Harvard, they began to amass a cult-like following who believed in Leary’s philosophy of “turn on, tune in, drop out.”  Leary’s experiences with LSD were transcending and it is for this reason that as a figure he fits so perfectly into the counterculture.  To Leary the experience had showed him that he no longer needed to be a part of American society or even the human species, for the him and his followers the question of LSD was much larger than such conventional existences.  It would be at the Hitchcock Mansion in Millbrook New York that all the indulgences of psychedelic experiences would begin to make waves in the counterculture of the 1960s. 

Timothy and Rosemary Leary attend John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “bed-in” for peace in 1969.

The Hitchcock mansion was owned by William Hitchcock, the grandson of an oil mogul who just wanted to do something anti-establishment.[4]  The mansion was a psychedelic party house from 1963 to 1966 housing brilliant people who believed that environment or setting could elevate and alter the experience of tripping.  Regardless of the research being done, the presence of celebrities and a slew of other drugs quickly damaged the association of LSD to a fun drug at Millbrook.[5]

Hitchcock Mansion in Millbrook, New York, served as a psychedelic sanctuary.

Ken Kesey was among the celebrities to popularize LSD with his psychedelic parties known as acid tests and his group of acid dropping friends known as the Merry Pranksters.  Kesey and the Merry Prankster’s antics aligned with the counterculture in that they mimicked insanity to make a mockery of society.[6]  The notion of a mind-opening substance could not have come at a more appealing time as sexual, racial, and societal norms were all going through profound changes.  Music and art conveniently heightened the experience of tripping and so with the emergence of psychedelic rock, concerts became even more elevated celebrating the effects as one was experiencing them.  The Grateful Dead was the most famous of these having been exposed to LSD early as their lyricist Robert Hunter had been a test subject at Stanford.[7] 

Along with the emergence of psychedelic rock and parties associating LSD with the counterculture was the image issue of LSD.  Because most people learn about drug use through the media and not personal experience its exaggerated presence in magazines and art was further distancing of its medical origins.[8]  This is not to say LSD did not appear in medical journals because before 1968 that is the only place it was, but after this year the coverage began to take advantage of advancements in color printing and become a frequent feature in magazines such as TIME.[9]  This made the visual effects of LSD easy and beautifully conceptualize on print and without the limitations or perhaps protection of censorship.  The abundance of coverage would peak in the years 1963 and 1966, with distorted and dazed photos and stories of mystical experiences.[10]  Due to its illegalization and association with the counterculture LSD was built in the American conscious through recreational, not medical testimonies.

Bellow are photos taken by Lawerence Schiller for the 1966 issue of LIFE magazine that show various people on LSD. The top right is depicting what became known as the “acid test dance” of which flashing lights and loud music were played.

[1] “Physician Says Harvard Students Have Suffered from LSD Effects | News | The Harvard Crimson,” accessed October 25, 2021,

[2] “Counterculture Movement · Civil Rights Digital History Project · Exhibits,” accessed November 3, 2021,

[3] Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain, Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond, Revised edition (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 93.

[4] Lee and Shlain, 101.

[5] Ahmed Kabil, “This Magical Drug Mansion in Upstate New York Is Where the Psychedelic ’60s Took off,” Medium, April 30, 2018,

[6] Meghan Warner Mettler, “If I Could Drive You Out of Your Mind,” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 9, no. 2 (May 2015): 172.

[7] Lee and Shlain, Acid Dreams, 143.

[8] Stephen I. Siff et al., “By,” 2009.

[9] Stephen I. Siff et al., “By,” 2009.

[10] Siff et al., “By,” 2009.