I spoke with Professor Erika Dyck about her book Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD From Clinic to Campus. This is part one of our discussion.
Splice Today: You teach and research within the history of medicine department at University of Saskatchewan. Where did your interest in the history of medicine begin?
Erika Dyck: The book began as my doctoral research in medical history where I was initially interested in trying to understand how and why psychiatrists were interested in experimenting with LSD.
ST: Psychedelic Psychiatry explores that fascination in great depth. Was there a specific moment in your research that hinted towards a bigger picture?
ED: To be honest, my interest in the topic may surprise you. It wasn’t, initially, out of any particular interest in LSD or even psychiatry, but instead it came from a more general interest in socialized medicine, state or publicly-funded health care, and how Saskatchewan’s socialist government understood mental health within this realm. I was also encouraged (by a colleague) to look for instances of human experimentation within that context to help understand how people were being treated within this system. It was in that vein that I rather naively stumbled across the LSD files, which then captured my sustained attention. I did find that they were part of this larger ideological approach to treatment, but there was a story within a story that overwhelmed this initial question.
ST: In introducing the period of research as the 1950s you wrote, “In fact, in an investigation of the history of psychopharmacology, psychiatrist David Healy argues that nearly all of the antidepressants including SSRI’s and antipsychotics were a result of the drug research that decade.” From what I’ve studied, this is spot-on. Outside of the occasional tweaking of a molecular side chain to attempt reducing of some of the more unpleasant side effects, there’s greater enthusiasm and effort put towards the branding campaigns of big companies putting out psychopharmaceutical drugs into market. In your opinion is it incorrect to be still operating a business model on discoveries made over 50 years ago?
ED: I’m not sure the extent to which this affects the business model, but it’s remarkable to me how significant the 50s were for introducing psychopharmaceutical solutions to human behavior on a scale unknown before or since. We sometimes now take for granted that psychopharmaceuticals are part of our modern response to mental illness, but it is a rather recent phenomenon and one that hasn’t significantly been challenged since that decade.
ST: I feel that it isn't that far of an advance from the behaviorism that was alleged to have been buried with the birth of cognitive Neuroscience in the 50s. The very idea that you can give a chemical to a person and obtain a predicted behavioral response is, no pun intended, very behaviorist. I'm not exactly saying there is a conspiracy of mind control at play. It’s just that in my eyes there wasn't much of an interest in moving beyond behaviorism once it was observed that these drugs worked. Did you get a sense that the researchers on the Saskatchewan scene were unimpressed by the relatively uninteresting psychoactivity of drug such as Miltown compared to the psychedelics they were studying?
ED: To some degree, yes. They were certainly aware of the contemporary psychoactive drugs that were increasingly prescribed in and outside of mental hospitals. In fact, in some of the correspondence between Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond they are somewhat critical of the way that those drugs, and they would include chlorpromazine, relied on a lifetime of consumption which profited the drug companies but made minimal changes for patients. They were much more interested in the psychedelics because they offered insight—not amelioration. The psychedelics, in their minds, were valuable for staff and patients alike, and not intended for repetitive use. Of course, the economics of use were less attractive as a business venture too.
ST: On the topic of Miltown and other similar prescribed psychotropic drugs, it’s interesting that they haven’t been challenged in light of the chaotic fallout of de-institutionalization. In conjunction with political policy these drugs catalyzed that process. Psychotropic drugs became utilized as this convenient adjunct to emptying out asylums across many states. It was a nightmare, and still is, to maintain compliance of a drug with strong side effects among those who came out of the asylum system then and for those who would have been normally committed today. What were the effects of emptying out large asylums such as the one at Weyburn?
ED: Certainly. I think the effects have probably been quite similar, though to properly answer your question may require an entire book in itself. Believe it or not, Weyburn was one of the first places to engage in deinstitutionalization on a large scale. After Humphry Osmond left, they hired a superintendent, Hugh Lafave, whose job was to close the hospital. He was very committed to care in the community and worked closely with reformers in Ontario, Quebec, and New York State (Rockefellers in particular). He was keen to establish community treatment models that increased autonomy among patients, and prepared the community for a more tolerant embrace of mental illness as part of the human condition. Although his ideas are notable, the general consensus here and across Canada more closely matches the sense of failure you describe.
ST: The most mysterious person in your book is “Captain” Al Hubbard. For a man dubbed the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD” he managed quite well in ingratiating himself with Osmond and the rest of the Saskatchewan research crew. In the correspondence between Osmond and Hoffer were there any overtly hesitant or negative words written about Hubbard? He comes across as a character in a film who the audience recognizes as a dark cloud on the horizon.
ED: I haven’t revisited that correspondence in some time, but Hubbard in my reading of those letters was rather unique. He generated a kind of curious response. People like Hoffer respected his charisma and enthusiasm when it came to LSD studies, while he remained somewhat cautious at times about what was sometimes a laissez faire attitude or even unethical, untested, or un-validated approach. He certainly did not subscribe to a scientific rigor, and yet he pushed the experiments in new and productive directions, which the researchers appreciated.
ST: There's this image of Al Hubbard I've encountered in various books that alleged he traveled with a large mayonnaise jar of, unbeknownst to airports authorities, LSD. Perhaps you're right in that the angle from the researchers was that as long as he laid the golden egg he was useful. However he figured as a bootlegger years before there was any talk about outlawing LSD. Was there anyone else who figured as prominently in his capacity as supplier?
ED: I suspect others are in a better position to answer this question, since I was primarily tracking people who came into contact with the psychiatrists. However, I think that Hubbard was somewhat unique because he crossed into these different circles and networks of people—moving through elite, conservative, religious, and underground networks. In this way his sphere of influence, I believe, was unrivalled even if we compare him with some of the more infamous figures from the 1960s who pedaled psychedelics (the drug and the lifestyle)—Jerry Garcia, Ken Kesey, Leary et al., or “the alchemist.”
ST: In reading several of Timothy Leary’s biographies there is reprinted a famous correspondence between Humphry Osmond and Aldous Huxley in which Huxley warns that Leary is too busy “cocking snooks at academia.” I’m tempted to ask whether there was any one particularly glaring misdeed that tarnished the reputation of LSD the most but maybe that‘s a bit like asking precisely which drug John Lennon was on which caused him to write “I am the Walrus.” There’s this sense of a logical cultural outcome. In your opinion was Leary truly the outlier, the lone wolf he portrayed himself to be or was he just an uninteresting logical conclusion of 60s alternative U.S.?
ED: Timothy Leary was, in many ways, a leader of the psychedelic movement and as such I’m uncomfortable reducing his role to an inevitable culmination of American 1960s culture. His charisma and network of followers catapulted him into the spotlight and he maintained that position comfortably and with considerable flair. I’m not sure that he could simply be replaced by another “guru,” and indeed there were other rivals for that position who were less capable of cultivating this historic mentality in the same manner. That said, I also believe that he fed off of many of the cultural and political currents of the day to fuel his own ideas and ego regarding the importance of psychedelics, authority (or a lack of it), and regulation of American lives writ large.
ST: Who were these rivals to the LSD guru throne?
ED: As a counter-factual proposition, if there had been no Leary, where would LSD be? I’m uncomfortable answering my own question, but there were certainly passionate observers of psychedelics who may have risen to this challenge in Leary’s absence. But, as above, I think that the combination of his personality and powerful network of friends entrenched him in a way that would be difficult to emulate. I think we might imagine Ken Kesey as a rival figure—albeit with a very different style and attitude. His flamboyance was much more rooted in a patriotic approach to America, even if LSD and other substances added color to his flag-waving antics. His leadership style was sufficiently different though as to avoid the spotlight much more than Leary, so the story would have been quite different, lopsided even, if the west-coast version overwhelmed this history.
ST: Why was flair necessary to informing the public about LSD? Couldn't it have been enough for him to have served as a source of sound factual information?
ED: It seems not. There were plenty of researchers who were attempting to offer “sober” evidence about these substances, but their ideas, like those of most academic pursuits, barely reached beyond the doors of the laboratory or hospital gates. Figures like Leary, Kesey, Watts, Garcia, etc. repackaged the experience in ways that moved well beyond a clinical encounter, one that tapped in a cultural yearning for ontological meaning—one that may have indeed come at the right time and place historically—to appeal to an unsettled generation of Americans (and to a lesser extent Canadians) who were raised in relative affluence, more educated than ever before, products of a post-war welfare state, and challenged to consider society differently amidst civil rights, feminism, anti-war, etc. activism.
ST: In 1968, LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin had graduated to Schedule I substances, effectively making them impossible to obtain by researchers and criminalizing their public use. Schedule I is a greatest hits of drugs which have the highest addiction potential. However with psychedelic drugs there’s a large body of evidence suggesting the low risk of addiction. Their most potent effects are subjective and not adequately described by a textbook diagram of a molecule snapping onto a companion receptor. Today underground research communities such as Erowid have more potential influence than the established medical community as far as steering the important question from politics to the actual medical risks of psychedelic drug taking.
ED: I think yes, but only in part. That is, I believe there’s a role for scientists to play in providing a “sober analysis” of how psychedelics interact with our brains, but in spite of the scientific energy focused on pharmaceutical solutions in the past, it was not the science that really did these drugs in. In my view, the criminalization of psychedelics involved a constellation of factors, including science, culture, politics, and not the least of which, economics. Psychedelics promised a form of therapy that did not garner the consensus of the scientific community, but also ones that did not promise commercial returns to rival their contemporaries—therapies that required years, or decades of use instead of a single session.
—Follow Miguel Sabogal on Twitter: @MrSabogal