The World's First-Ever Acid Trip Actually Kinda Sucked
A deep dive into Albert Hofmann's personal archives sheds startling new light on a signature moment at the dawn of the psychedelic era.
A portrait of late Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman Packages is seen on a collection of LSD blotting papers shown during an exhibition entitled 'LSD, the 75 Years of a Problem Child' at the Swiss National Library on September 21, 2018 in Bern. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains.... The world was as if newly created.
This was Albert Hofmann's famous description of his newly-discovered chemical, LSD, in Basel, Switzerland in 1943, as he described it in his 1979 memoir LSD: My Problem Child, which recounts his journey from obscure Swiss biochemist to psychedelic celebrity.
Hofmann’s legendary acid trip has become the founding chapter of modern psychedelic culture and a key Eureka moment in scientific history. Like the apple falling on Newton’s head, strait-laced scientist has mind-blowing cosmic epiphany was an irresistible meme. The image of him taking LSD before heading home on his bicycle, pedaling unsteadily into the technicolor future, is the acid heads’ own Nativity scene. It’s an event commemorated annually on April 19 as "Bicycle Day"—the psychedelic precursor to weed’s 4/20 celebrations—with parades, gigs, parties and day-glo bike rides through cities around the globe. It’s an image that has been printed on many thousands of acid tabs.
Hofmann’s trip is being commemorated in an exhibition at the National Library of Switzerland in Bern: LSD: A Problem Child turns 75. The exhibition includes documents from Hofmann’s personal archive, recently acquired by Bern University. Among these, unreported until now, is the report he filed three days after his first acid trip for his employers at the Sandoz pharmaceutical company.
Yet the first ever acid trip was, according to Hofmann, not a blissed-out dreamscape but an unremitting nightmare.
The report he wrote three days after the trip in 1943 turns out to be substantially different from the one he recounted in 1979, which became such a significant part of psychedelic history.
There are no fantastic images or colored fountains. Instead it’s a grueling bad trip episode that he experienced as an acute poisoning, with symptoms that were mostly physical and extremely unpleasant. Rather than a psychedelic, he and the visiting doctor compared it to a massive overdose of amphetamines. In fact, the first truly psychedelic acid trip was recorded by someone else: Werner Stoll, the son of Hofmann’s boss.
In this four-page document, Hofmann begins the story three days earlier, on April 16, when he felt himself becoming dizzy while working in his Sandoz lab with a couple of new chemical compounds. He suspected he had inhaled some solvent vapors and went home to lie down in a darkened room, at which point he "sank into a not unpleasant, intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination.
"The nature and course of this disorder made me suspect it was a toxic effect," the original report continued. Three days later, he decided to make a self-experiment with the substance he believed to be responsible: lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.
On the morning of April 19, he synthesized 0.5 milliliters of the compound, dissolved it in 10 cubic centimeters of water, and at 4:20 PM took 250 micrograms—0.000025 of a gram, the smallest dose he thought he might conceivably notice. At 5 PM, he began to feel dizzy, as he had previously, and decided to bike home. On the now famous bike ride, the symptoms became stronger: "I had great difficulty in speaking clearly and my field of vision fluctuated and swam like an image in a distorted mirror," he wrote at the time, very much as he described it in his 1979 memoir. He "had the feeling that I was not moving from the spot, although my colleague said I was moving at a fast pace." When he arrived home he called his neighbor, who summoned the nearest doctor.
The symptoms soon became overwhelming. Hofmann recorded them at the time as "dizziness, visual disturbance, the faces of those present seemed vividly colored and grimacing; powerful motor disturbances, alternating with paralysis; my head, body and limbs all felt heavy, as if filled with metal; cramps in the calves, hands cold and without sensation; a metallic taste on the tongue; dry and constricted throat; a feeling of suffocation; confusion alternating with clear recognition of my situation, in which I felt outside myself as a neutral observer as I half-crazily cried or muttered indistinctly." Given that Hofmann had taken a full-trigger dose of acid with no idea what it was going to do, it's not surprising he thought he was going crazy or dying.
By the time the doctor, Walter Schilling, arrived, "The peak of the crisis was already past." Schilling’s notes, preserved in the archive, record that he was struck by Hofmann's "motor disturbances and anxious mood" but that he could find nothing seriously wrong with him. "Objectively his heart action was regular… his pulse was average, his breathing calm and deep."
It's here that Hofmann's later memoir parts company with the report he wrote at the time. "Now, little by little," he wrote 36 years later, "I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes." Then come the kaleidoscopes and colored fountains. But there’s little of this in the original report, which mentions "sensory distortions" but describes the visions as "unpleasant, predominantly toxic-green and blue tones."
The 1943 document concludes with Hofmann’s suggestion, which he discussed with Dr. Schilling at the time, that the "symptoms were very similar to those that might be observed in an overdose of an amphetamine-type stimulant such as "Pervitin" (a German brand of methamphetamine that had been widely available during the 1930s).
The next morning, Hofmann wrote in 1979, "A sensation of well-being and renewed life suffused me.... The world was as if newly created." But his report at the time simply states that he woke "feeling perfectly healthy again, if somewhat weary, but remained all day in bed on the advice of the physician."
The first acid trip had been a shattering experience, but Hofmann knew he was on to something remarkable. He could think of no other substance that produced such a powerful effect from such a tiny dose. "The toxic dose of Pervitin is somewhere in the high tenths of a gram," he wrote, which would make LSD around 1000 times stronger.
The archive contains unseen reports of a series of trips that Hofmann undertook between 1943 and 1946 but never wrote about subsequently. In fact, during the course of 1943, he took LSD three more times, though at much lower doses (he never again took anything like the 250 micrograms of his first trip, which he regarded for the rest of his life as a massive overdose). On December 30, he submitted a report on these experiments to Arthur Stoll, which has never been reprinted or translated into English.
Switzerland was an island of neutrality during World War II, but Basel was a border city and Hofmann was at this time doing military service. He was posted in Claro, in the Swiss canton of Ticino, among the forested mountains near the frontier with Mussolin's Italy. On September 29, he took a small dose of 20 micrograms at his barracks, after which he drank coffee and grappa with his fellow soldiers and played foosball and billiards. As the effects came on, he "withdrew almost completely into myself, my own thoughts," and went to bed with images playing across his closed eyes and "warm comfortable feelings."
For the second experiment, on October 2, he took his 20 micrograms later in the evening, just before going to bed. This time the experience was much less pleasant. "I had disturbing dreams," he recorded, including "a crazy mutilated woman with her arms cut off and burned out eyes. My companions thought I was insane and I was unable to convince them that I wasn’t." On Halloween, he ventured a larger dose of 30 micrograms, which he took after a post-lunch nap (he was off duty, as it was a Sunday). He felt a "slight daze, shivers, nausea, a faint metallic taste in my mouth" and returned to bed, feeling the need to lie still, along with some "stimulation in the genital region." He entered "a dozy state," in which "disturbing, uncanny phantasms, partly sensual visions" flitted through his mind. At 10 PM, he got up for a biscuit and some chocolate.
The following year, 1944, Sandoz began testing LSD on animals, and Hofmann synthesized a couple of variants, which he designated "dihydro-LSD" and "d-Iso-LSD." They were sampled by some of his colleagues, including his assistant Susi Ramstein, but they proved less psychoactive than the original. On January 17, 1946, Hofmann reported another self-experiment with LSD, and relaxed into the experience much more than he had on previous occasions. Sitting at home in his armchair after a dose of 30 micrograms, he "was struck by the beautiful colors of the tabletop… wonderful warm tones that changed from orange to blood-red to purple" as the electric lamp brightened and dimmed. He had "great fun with Rorschach images," the inkblot personality-test cards, spending around half an hour absorbed in studying their abstract shapes. He was finally enjoying some well-earned quality time with his problem child.
But the first truly psychedelic description of an acid trip would appear the following year, from another source. LSD had begun to circulate among the pharmacists at Sandoz, including Hofmann's director Arthur Stoll, who sought the opinion of his son Werner, a psychiatrist at the Burghölzli clinic in Zurich. Werner Stoll took 60 micrograms, only a quarter of the dose that had steamrollered Hofmann on Bicycle Day but twice as much as his subsequent experiments. It turned out to be just right.
Lying in a darkened room, Stoll was mesmerized by dazzling, dancing abstract shapes and patterns: "a profusion of circles, vortices, sparks, showers, crosses and spirals in constant, racing flux." Gradually, "more highly organized visions also appeared: arches, rows of arches, a sea of roofs, desert landscapes, terraces, flickering fire, starry skies of unbelievable splendor." His state of mind was "consciously euphoric. I enjoyed the condition," and "knew the euphoria and exultation of an artistic vision." In conclusion, he wrote: "Terms such as ‘fireworks’ or ‘kaleidoscopic’ were poor and inadequate."
Werner Stoll’s report, published in 1947 in a Swiss psychiatry journal, was titled "Lysergic acid diethylamide, a phantasticum from the ergot group." Hofmann had theorized that LSD was an amphetamine-type stimulant, but Stoll reached for a different category: "phantasticum" was a term coined back in the 1920s by the pharmacist Louis Lewin to describe vision-producing drugs such as cannabis, datura, ayahuasca, fly agaric—and particularly mescaline, which had been isolated from the peyote cactus in 1897 and first synthesized in the laboratory in 1919.
During the 1920s, mescaline was investigated thoroughly by German psychologists. Researchers such as Kurt Beringer and Heinrich Klüver published book-length studies on it, focusing particularly on its closed-eye visual hallucinations. They tracked the way that these progressed from abstract shapes—spirals, lattices, tunnels—to recognizable objects, just as Werner Stoll now did. From this point, mescaline became the model to which the newly discovered LSD was compared. As Hofmann later wrote in his memoir, "The picture of the activity of LSD derived from these first investigations was not new. It largely matched the commonly held view of mescaline." The main difference was in the dose: a gram of mescaline was three or four doses, a gram of LSD was several thousand. But the visual language of the acid trip, as it emerged, drew on templates that had been set down a generation earlier.
The Bicycle Day celebrations that mark every April 19 would have been incomprehensible to Hofmann in 1943. The idea that LSD could be a source of personal revelation or spiritual transcendence was still far in the future.
Acid was at the start of its own long strange trip: from research chemical to psychiatric wonder drug, brainwashing tool to agent of ego-dissolution, cosmic insight and cultural revolution. As Hoffman wrote in 1979, "The last thing I could have anticipated was that this substance should ever come to be used as anything like a pleasure drug."
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