Albert Hofmann, PhD, most famous for accidentally discovering LSD and its psychoactive (referred to popularly as “psychedelic”) effects, died at his home in Switzerland on April 29, 2008, at the age of 102.1
His research led to the discovery of important drugs like methergine, used to treat postpartum hemorrhaging, and Hydergine, which helps with circulation and cerebral function. Hofmann also developed dihydroergotamine mesylate (Dihydergot), which is still used in the treatment of migraines and orthostatic hypotension. He was also the first to isolate and name psilocybin and psilocin, the psychoactive compounds in the fabled Mexican mushrooms (Psilocybin mexicana, Strophariaceae) and the hallucinogenic properties of Ololiuqui, psychoactive morning glories (Ipomoea spp, Rivea corymbosa etc., Convolvulaceae).2
Dr. Hofmann was born in Baden, Switzerland, January 11, 1906. He received his PhD in chemistry from Zürick University in 1929. He headed the Sandoz Laboratories research department for natural medicine from 1929 to 1971, when he retired. He wrote over 100 scientific articles and authored and co-authored several books.3
While working as a chemist at Sandoz in the 1930s, Dr. Hofmann studied ergot (Claviceps purpurea, Clavicipitaceae) a fungus that grows on rye.1 Though viewed as poisonous, the ergotine alkaloid derived from it has been used as a medicine to induce labor. According to Dennis McKenna, PhD, senior lecturer and research associate at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, the poisonous constituents are collectively known as the ergot alkaloids, all of which are lysergic acid derivatives (e-mail, May 30, 2008). Many ergot alkaloids and semi-synthetics derived from them have important uses in medicine. Dr. Hofmann synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide-25 (LSD) in 1938 and accidentally found its psychoactive effects later in 1943. Hoffman’s “accident” became famous. It was the first time a human had ingested LSD, which led to a very uncomfortable bicycle ride and the first “acid trip.”
His original goal when synthesizing LSD was to find a substance to stimulate the circulatory and respiratory systems.2 Though this wasn’t accomplished, he was certainly successful in creating a compound that eventually inspired a movement of experimental and creative music, films, and other art forms.
LSD was banned in the United States in 1966 for a myriad of reasons.1 “It was, basically, hysteria and fear that led to the blanket prohibition of LSD and other psychedelics,” said McKenna. “It was really an overreaction to a class of drugs that, despite their dramatic effects, are non-addictive, non-toxic, and really quite safe if used appropriately.”
Dr. Hofmann fought for LSD’s reintroduction into research, arguing that it was likely to help patients with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. He also proposed that it might also help treat alcoholism.4 LSD has recently been approved for use in a psychotherapy research project in Switzerland, which is sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a California-based nonprofit that sponsors research aimed at developing psychedelic agents as prescription medicines. This research project will be conducted by Peter Gasser, PhD, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist in Switzerland, on patients with anxiety associated with end-of-life issues, according to Rick Doblin, founder and president of MAPS (e-mail to M Blumenthal, April 30, 2008). Doblin added that LSD has been studied for treatment of alcoholism, heroin addiction, end-of-life acceptance, anxiety, and depression.5
“Similar studies are going on in the US, one with psilocybin at UCLA, another about to start with MDMA at Harvard’s McLean Hospital. No currently approved studies with LSD are ongoing in the United States, but that may change soon,” wrote McKenna (e-mail, May 21, 2008). “The psychedelics hold great promise for the treatment of mental disorders. Psilocybin has emerged as the medicine of choice in most of these studies because of its inherently low toxicity, relatively short duration of action, and more easily accommodated ‘altered state’ than LSD. LSD also has the cultural baggage and notoriety that makes it harder to get approved for studies, but it’s also a perfectly good medication and I think will now be more aggressively investigated.”
Doblin described Hofmann before his departure as “fully lucid and deeply satisfied that LSD psychotherapy research had been permitted to resume” (e-mail to M. Blumenthal, April 30, 2008). Doblin added that Dr. Hofmann called the renewal of LSD psychotherapy research the fulfillment of his heart’s desire.
“He did make many other important contributions to pharmacology and medicine,” said McKenna. “He is ‘notorious’ for LSD and I suppose some people will ‘blame’ him for that, as if it were his fault somehow. But he didn’t start out to make a dangerous, illegal drug; he was a scientist who accidentally discovered something that changed history, changed society, and just maybe changed evolution.”
Dr. Hoffman is survived by 3 children but outlived a son and his wife. The names of the surviving children have not been released to the public. “Albert died several months after his wife Anita died on December 20, 2007, demonstrating that their love affair of over 70 years was the primary motivation for both of them to stay alive so long,” wrote Doblin.
More tribute articles about Albert Hofmann can be accessed at www.maps.org.
—Kelly E. Saxton
- Maugh II TH. Albert Hofmann, 102; Swiss chemist discovered LSD. Los Angeles Times. April 30, 2008; B6.
- Albert Hofmann: research chemist who synthesized LSD and had the world’s first ‘acid trip’ on his bicycle. Daily Telegraph. May 1, 2008; 23.
- Smith C. Albert Hofmann, the father of LSD, dies at 102. New York Times. April 30, 2008; B07.
- Bernstein A. Albert Hofmann, 102; chemist discovered LSD. Washington Post. April 30, 2008; B07.
- Simon S. Remembrances: ‘Father of LSD’ dies at 102. NPR News. Weekend Edition Saturday, May 3, 2008. Available at http://www.npr.org/ templates/story/story.php?storyId=90157319. Accessed May 21, 2008.