Portrait of Dr. Albert Hofmann. Interview with Dr. Albert Hofmann.
In the focus
Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Albert Hofmann
Portrait of Dr. Albert Hofmann
Swiss Albert Hofmann is reputed to be one of the most important chemists of our times. He is the discoverer of LSD, which he considers, up to this very day, as both a "wonder drug" and a "problem child". In addition he did pioneering work as a researcher of other psychoactive substances as well as active agents of important medicinal plants and mushrooms. Under the spell of the mind-expanding potential of LSD the scientist turned increasingly into a philosopher of nature and a visionary critical of contemporary culture.
On 11 January 1906 Albert Hofmann was born in the quiet small town of Baden, Switzerland, as the eldest one of four children. His father is a toolmaker in a factory where he meets Albert’s mother-to-be; when he falls seriously ill, Albert has to support the family. That’s why he makes a commercial apprenticeship. At the same time he swots up on Latin and other languages, since he wants to take his A-levels, which he succeeds in at a private school (paid for by a godfather).
In 1926, at the age of twenty, Albert Hofmann begins to study chemistry at the Zurich university. Four years later he does his doctorate with distinction. Subsequently he works at the Sandoz pharmaceutical-chemical research laboratory in Basel, a company to which he proves his loyalty for more than four uninterrupted decades. (In 1996 Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy merged to become the economic giant Novartis.) That’s where he mainly works with medicinal plants and mushrooms. He’s specifically interested in alkaloids (nitrogen compounds) of ergot, a cereal fungus. In 1938 he isolates the basic component of all therapeutically essential ergot alkaloids, lysergic acid; he mixes it with a series of chemicals. He then tests the effects of the thus derived lysergic acid derivatives as circulatory and respiratory stimulant – among others LSD-25 (Lysergic acid diethylamide). Because the observed effects fell short of expectations, however, the pharmacologists at Sandoz quickly lose interest in it.
Five years later, following a "peculiar presentiment", Albert Hofmann devotes himself again to LSD-25. On 16 April 1943, while synthesizing, he is overcome by unusual sensations – "a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness" – which prompt him to interrupt his laboratory work. "At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicationlike condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight too unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away."
Three days later, on 19 April 1943, Hofmann sets out for the first voluntary LSD trip in the history of man. Because he cannot yet judge the enormous efficacy of the drug, he takes, at 4:20 pm, with 250 microgram a relatively high dosis – and gets to know the hallucinogenic power of the substance with all its intensity (see caption on the main topic of Friday, 13 January 2006).
With his discovery of LSD Albert Hofmann has caused a snowball effect which turns into an avalanche in no time. It influences the late second millennium - at least in the Western world – to an extent, comparable only to the "pill" (see information text "LSD"). Consciousness researchers respectfully spoke of an "atom bomb of the mind".
To worldwide setting-in research Albert Hofmann makes essential contributions. So he is, in 1958, the first one to succeed in isolating the psychoactive substances psilocybin and psilocin from Mexican magic mushrooms (Psilocybe mexicana); in Ololiuqui, the seeds of a climbing plant, he finds substances related to LSD. He isolates and synthesizes substances of important medicinal plants in order to study their effects. His basic research blesses Sandoz with several successful remedies: Hydergine, an effective one in geriatrics, Dihydergot, a circulation- and blood-pressure stabilizing medicament, and Methergine, an active agent applied in gynaecology. Hofmann stays with Sandoz until his retirement in 1971, last as head of the research department for natural medicines. From then on he devotes more and more of his time to writing and lecturing. He increasingly wins recognition for his scientific pioneering ventures: he is given honorary doctorates by the the ETH Zurich, the Stockholm university, and the Berlin Free University; and he is called into the Nobel Prize Committee.
Here, outstanding contributions to research were honored – but Albert Hofmann's life’s work comprises much more. From the start he took a favorable view of efforts by physicians and psychotherapists to include LSD into new approaches for the treatment of manifold chronic deseases. But LSD isn't only useful with special diagnosisses – it’s Hofmann's firm belief that the "psychedelic" potential of this "wonder drug" could be beneficial to all of us. In LSD-induced altered states of consciousness its discoverer doesn’t only see psychotic delusions of a chemically manipulated mind, but windows to a higher reality – true spiritual experiences during which a normally deeply buried potential of our mind, the heavenly element of creation, our unity with it reveals itself. "The one-sided belief in the scientific view of life is based on a far-reaching misunderstanding," Hofmann says in Insight – Outlook. "Certainly, everything it contains is real – but this represents just one half of reality; only its material, quantifiable part. It lacks all those spiritual dimensions which cannot be described in physical or chemical terms; and it’s exactly these which include the most important characteristics of all life."
It’s not the single consumer alone who profits from chemicals which help to understand these aspects of the world; for Hofmann it could help to heal deficits the Western world chronically suffers from: "Materialism, estrangement from nature (...), lack of professional fulfilment in a mechanized, lifeless world of employment, boredom and aimlessness in a rich, saturated society, the missing of a sense-making philosophical fundamentalness of life." Starting from experiences as LSD conveys them, we could "develop a new awareness of reality" which "could become the basis of a spirituality that's not founded on the dogmatics of existing religions, but on insights into a higher and profounder sense" – on that we recognize, read, and understand "the revelations of the book which God's finger wrote". When such insights "become established in our collective consciousness, it could arise from that, that scientific research and the previous destroyers of nature – technology and industry – will serve the purpose of changing back our world into what it formerly was: into an earthly Garden of Eden."
With this message the genius chemist turns into a profound philosopher of nature and visionary critical of contemporary culture. The critical distance from the LSD euphoria of the hippie- and flower power-driven ones Albert Hofmann has never given up, however; that he has fathered a "problem child" he already emphasizes with the title of one of his most known works. He always underlines the risks of an uncontrolled intake. On the other hand he never tires of emphasizing what's the basic difference between LSD and most of the other drugs (see information text "Drugs – a Classification"): even if used repeatedly, it doesn't make addictive; it doesn't reduce one's awareness; taken in a normal dosis it’s absolutely non-toxic. The total demonization of psychedelica, as pursued by the mass media, conservative politicians, and governments from the sixties onward, he never could understand; for him, there is no reason why mentally stable persons in the right set and setting shouldn't enjoy LSD. All the more disappointed Albert Hofmann was when, in the late sixties, he had to see it happen that the use of LSD was worldwide criminalized and prohibited – even for therapeutical and research purposes (see information on main topic of Friday, 13 January 2006). Should the Basel Symposium encourage an about-turn, this certainly would be the most beautiful present which could be given to Albert Hofmann’s hundredst birthday.
LSD – My Problem Child, New York 1980
Insight – Outlook, Atlanta 1989
Plants of the Gods (mit Richard Evans Schultes), Maidenhead 1979
www.hofmann.org, website of the Albert Hofmann Foundation, USA
www.lycaeum.org/books/my_problem_child, with LSD – My Problem Child, Albert Hofmann’s standard work
(Harald Wiesendanger • Translation: Udo Breger)