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Albert Hofmann: Bicycle Day and the Discovery of LSD

Albert Hofmann Profile: Bicycle Day and the Discovery of LSD
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Albert Hofmann was a Swiss chemist best known for being the father of LSD, or lysergic acid diethylamide. April 19, known as “Bicycle Day”, commemorates the day Dr. Hofmann discovered the full effects of LSD on his bewildering bike ride home from the lab. In addition to bringing LSD into the world, he was the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the hallucinogenic compounds psilocybin and psilocin, found in magic mushrooms. 

Who is Albert Hofmann

Throughout his prolific career, Albert Hofmann authored over 100 scientific papers and several books, including most famously his 1979 autobiography LSD My Problem Child. A rare hybrid of a mystic, philosopher, and scientist, Hofmann held that LSD was a tool to investigate consciousness with enormous therapeutic potential. He consistently advocated its safe, responsible use to preserve his creation as a “wonder child” rather than a “problem child.”

Early Life 

Albert Hofmann was born in Baden, Switzerland on January 11, 1906. He was the eldest of four children to Elizabeth and Adolf Hofmann, the latter a factory toolmaker. Albert’s godfather financially supported his education, as his working-class family wasn’t very well off.

Since early childhood, Hofmann maintained a special relationship with the outdoors. In LSD My Problem Child, he recounts euphoric moments of natural oneness while exploring the forested paths in the hills above his hometown. The spiritual epiphanies of his childhood came full circle to his experiences with LSD and beyond. In his autobiography, he states, “Much later, in middle age, a link was established between my profession and these visionary experiences from childhood.” 

Albert Hofmann’s deep connection with the plant world largely fueled his desire to study chemistry and ultimately investigate the constituents of medicinal plants. At the age of 20, Hofmann began studying chemistry at the University of Zurich while working as a commercial apprentice. In his doctoral work, he conducted research into the chemical structure of chitin, the main component of fungi and the exoskeleton of insects. He graduated with a doctoral degree in 1929, at the young age of 23.

Career and Discovery of LSD

Following the completion of his doctorate studies in the spring of 1929, Dr. Hofmann joined Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. Here, he was assigned to work in the pharmaceutical-chemical research department with his co-worker Professor Arthur Stoll, the founder and director of the Sandoz pharmaceutical department.

Early Research at Sandoz

Dr. Hofmann and Professor Stoll were tasked with isolating the active constituents of medicinal plants, creating pure forms of the compounds for their use as pharmaceuticals. During his first years at Sandoz, Dr. Hofmann worked on a program that aimed to synthesize and purify the cardioactive constituents of the Mediterranean medicinal plant squill.

After working with squill, Dr. Hofmann switched his focus of study to ergot, a fungus that grows in grains of rye. During this time, he developed a drug used to treat postpartum hemorrhaging called Methergine. 

Dr. Hofmann was then tasked with synthesizing new lysergic acid compounds derived from ergot, with the intention of obtaining a circulatory and respiratory stimulant. He produced a series of lysergic acid derivatives, and in November of 1938, synthesized the 25th substance in the series: LSD-25 (or lysergic acid diethylamide-25). 

Given the chemical similarity of lysergic acid diethylamide to a stimulant on the market called Coramine, Hofmann and his coworkers expected some stimulant properties. After some initial animal studies (who became merely “restless”), the pharmacological department at Sandoz came to the conclusion that the substance did not have any properties warranting additional research. With that, LSD-25 was shelved in favor of other research projects. 

Revisiting LSD-25

However, with a conviction (a “peculiar presentiment”, he called it) that there was something more to LSD-25, Hofmann decided to synthesize another LSD-25 sample five years later in April of 1943. That Friday afternoon, he unintentionally ingested a trace amount of the compound through his fingertips during the final stages of its synthesis. His work was interrupted by “unusual sensations” and he later sent a report to his coworker describing the perplexing effects, 

“I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed…I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours, this condition faded away.”

The next day he set out to confirm the effects of his accidental intoxication with a sizeable dose of 250 mcg. This self-experiment on April 19 included his legendary bicycle ride, wherein the full extent of its effects became apparent. He shared a detailed trip report with his coworkers Dr. Stoll and the director of the pharmacological department, Dr. Rothlin. All of them found it unbelievable that the drug contained such high psychoactive potency at such minute doses. 

Hofmann’s Research Post-LSD Discovery

Following the remarkable discovery of LSD’s psychic effects, Dr. Hofmann focused on the properties of other sacred plants. In 1956, he became director of Sandoz’s Natural Products Department and continued studying hallucinogenic substances. In 1958, he successfully synthesized the psychoactive compounds in the Psilocybe mexicana mushroom, which he named psilocybin and psilocin. That same year, he also first synthesized the hallucinogenic tryptamine 4-AcO-DET (4-Acetoxy-N,N-diethyltryptamine).

In 1960, he isolated the active compound in morning glory seeds, LSA, or lysergic acid amide, a compound he found to be structurally similar to LSD. In addition, he traveled to Mexico with his wife Anita Hofmann in 1962 to research the plant Salvia divinorum, though he wasn’t able to identify its psychoactive constituents. 

Hofmann stayed at Sandoz as head of the research department for the Department of Natural Products until his retirement in 1971. After his retirement, he devoted his time to travel, writing, and lectures. He kept up to date with advancements in his field and frequently kept in correspondence with non-academic experimenters. This includes the novelists Aldous Huxley and Ernest Junger as well as countless other counter-culture proponents, artists, and scientists.

Albert Hofmann’s Death

Albert Hofmann passed away on April 29, 2008 from a heart attack at his home in Burg outside of Basel, Switzerland. He was 102 years old. 

Up until the end of his life, he championed LSD as “medicine for the soul” and advocated for its use within safe and controlled contexts, psychotherapeutic or otherwise. Although he was critical of its cavalier use, he always kept faith in his problem child. Indeed, he was pleased in his later years when LSD was on track for widespread acceptance once again.

What is Bicycle Day

April 19 was memorialized as “Bicycle Day”, the day Dr. Hofmann embarked on his first intentional LSD trip with a quarter milligram. On that day in 1943, the full effects of the trip came on during an incredible ride home on his bicycle from the lab alongside his lab assistant. 

This first intentional LSD trip was not imbued with heavenly qualities, but hellish. His experience climaxed into a “horror trip” (his own words), where everything took on a threatening nature. At home, he felt demonically possessed, and his neighbor (who was offering him milk) assumed the form of a malevolent witch. He was even contending with his own demise, reflecting, “If I was now forced to leave this world prematurely, it was because of this lysergic acid diethylamide that I myself had brought forth into this world.” 

These dark reflections lessened once his doctor arrived and detected nothing physiologically wrong with him. With the hours passing, the horror softened. Eventually, his bad trip gave way to an afterglow of appreciation and gratitude, “as if the world was newly created”, as he put it. 

Top Albert Hofmann Quotes

“I see the true importance of LSD in the possibility of providing material aid to meditation aimed at the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality.”

“I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be.”

“Evolution of mankind is paralleled by the increase and expansion of consciousness.”

“I share the belief of many of my contemporaries that the spiritual crisis pervading all spheres of Western industrial society can be remedied only by a change in our world view. 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.”

Top Albert Hofmann Books

FAQ

When did Albert Hofmann discover LSD?

Albert Hofmann first synthesized LSD on November 16, 1938. He didn’t discover the psychedelic properties until five years later on April 19, 1943.

How much acid did Albert Hofmann take?

Albert Hofmann took small doses of LSD throughout much of his life. In a 1976 High Times interview, he stated he took acid 10-15 times over the course of 27 years in the private company of good friends.

Much later, when Albert Hofmann was nearly 100 years old, he said in a 2006 NYT interview, “I know LSD; I don’t need to take it anymore…. Maybe when I die, like Aldous Huxley.”

Where can I buy Albert Hofmann blotter art?

Albert Hoffman blotter art can be purchased online at these websites:

Are there any Albert Hofmann documentaries?

Yes.

How did Albert Hofmann die?

Albert Hofmann passed away from a heart attack at his home on April 29, 2008.

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