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R.I.P.: The man who arguably did more than any other to inspire some of the best rock ever

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Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist and accidental inventor of the twenty-fifth synthesis of lysergic acid diethylamide -- a.k.a. LSD -- dead of a heart attack at the age of 102.

As tribute, here is how I told the tale in my musical history, Turn on Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock.

In the spring of 1943, Albert Hofmann was a close-cropped, bespectacled professional and a thirty-seven-year-old father of three. He had been working as a research chemist at the Sandoz Company in Basel, Switzerland, for fourteen years, the last eight spent researching the medicinal properties of ergot, a fungus that grows on rye. During the Middle Ages, ergot-contaminated rye bread caused outbreaks of St. Anthony’s Fire, a nasty disease that caused the fingers and toes to turn black and fall off, eventually resulting in death through violent convulsions. In the 1500s midwives discovered that small amounts of ergot could help during childbirth by speeding uteral contractions and slowing the flow of blood. Hofmann’s work involved synthesizing variations of lysergic acid, the key ingredient in the ergot alkaloid, in the hope that it could be used as a cure for migraines. The chemist produced his twenty-fifth synthesis, lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD-25, in 1938, but when it was first tested by Sandoz pharmacologists, they didn’t notice anything special, and work moved on to other molecular combinations.

Five years later, Hofmann had an odd premonition that Sandoz staffers had overlooked something unique about LSD-25. In the ’60s, hippies looking for cosmic coincidences would point out that this notion struck the good doctor only weeks after scientists first achieved nuclear fission under a football field at the University of Chicago. New Age thinking holds that nature simultaneously gave humanity the tool to destroy itself (the atom bomb) and the key to open the door to a higher and more peaceful level of consciousness (LSD). Of course Hofmann couldn’t have known about any of that. On April 16, 1943, he synthesized a new batch of LSD-25, and as he finished his work, he began to feel dizzy. Assuming he had a touch of the flu, he closed his lab for the weekend and went home, and there he embarked on the first acid trip. “I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors,” he wrote in his autobiography LSD, My Problem Child. “After some two hours, this condition faded away.”

Reflecting on these gentle hallucinations over the weekend, Hoffmann decided that they had been caused by the drug, which he had handled without wearing gloves. Late on the afternoon of April 19 he tested his theory. The chemist dissolved 250 millionths of a gram of LSD in a glass of water and, in the name of science, drank it down. After forty minutes, he began to feel dizzy and anxious. He hopped on his beaten-up bicycle—the only form of transportation available in wartime Switzerland—and started the four-mile trip home. He felt as if he was barely moving, but the assistant who followed him on another bike reported that they pedaled at a furious pace. The road before him rose and fell like the swells of a turbulent sea, and the buildings that lined the streets bulged and contracted like objects thrust into a fun-house mirror. When Hofmann finally reached home, he was in the middle of the first bad acid trip. His world wouldn’t stop spinning, the furniture took on grotesque forms, and the neighbor who offered him a glass of milk turned into a horrible witch. He only calmed down when his physician arrived. “Now, little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes,” he wrote. “Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me . . . exploding in colored fountains.”

Hofmann’s bike ride would be commemorated (consciously or not) in several early psychedelic rock songs, including “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” by the Beach Boys, “Bike” by Pink Floyd, and “My White Bicycle” by Tomorrow.

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Jeez, who knew he was still alive? Well, he's not anymore. It's safe to say the world would be a much different place without the pioneering work of Dr. Hoffman. We certainly wouldn't have as much good music, that's for... Read More

1 Comment

Jim, great post, as usual, especially considering how influential Dr. Hofmann was... but you got the bike ride song by the Beach Boys wrong! Right album, wrong track. You were thinking of "You Still Believe In Me," which uses bike horns and chimes. "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" was the one with the theremin.

Jim DeRo replies: Thanks! I must have been tripping!

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on April 30, 2008 9:15 AM.

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