An Obituary by Dieter A. Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmüller
At the age of 102 years, Albert Hofmann died peacefully last Tuesday morning, 29th April, in his home near Basel, Switzerland. Still last weekend we talked to him, and he expressed his great joy about the blooming plants and the fresh green of the meadows and trees around his house. His vitality and his open mind conducted him until his last breath.
He is reputed to be one of the most important chemists of our times. He is the discoverer of LSD, which he considers, up to date, 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 consciousness-expanding potential of LSD the scientist turned increasingly into a philosopher of nature and a visionary critical of contemporary culture.
Until his death Albert Hofmann remained active. He communicated with colleagues and experts from all over the world, gave interviews, and showed great interest in the world’s affairs, although he decided to retire from public life already a few years ago. Nevertheless he welcomed visitors at his home on the Rittimatte, and opened the door for late in the evening.
He managed to keep his almost childlike curiosity for the wonders of nature and creation. In his “paradise,” as he would call his home, he enjoyed being close to nature, especially to plants. During one of our last visits he said to us with luminous eyes: “The Rittimatte is my second most important discovery.” It was always a unique experience to stroll with him over his meadows and to share his enjoying the living nature all around.
Gratefully and lovingly we grieve for an outstanding scientist, an important philosopher, a dear and true friend, and our member of the board.
Albert Hofmann was born on January 1906 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 decides for a commercial apprenticeship. At the same time he starts studying 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 University of Zurich. 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 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 effects observed 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 intoxication like 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 dose – and gets to know the hallucinogenic power of the substance with all its intensity.
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”. 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 gynecology. 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 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 diseases. But LSD isn’t only useful with special diagnoses – 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 his book 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 fulfillment 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 dogmas 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: even if used repeatedly, it doesn’t make addictive; it doesn’t reduce one’s awareness; taken in a normal dose it’s absolutely non-toxic. The total demonizing of psychedelics, 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 therapeutic and research purposes
The impetus for a change emanating from the impact of the international Symposium “LSD – Problem Child and Wonder Drug” in 2006 in Basel, at the occasion of his 100th birthday, quickened him to say that “after this conference my problem child has definitely turned into a wonder child,” and he regarded this development as his most beautiful birthday present.
And after just shortly before his 102nd birthday, he enjoyed taking notice that the first LSD study with humans has received the permission from the Federal Office of Public Health in Bern, which he called the “fulfillment of my heart’s desire.”
His life has become an ideal for many for how we can reach a great age in mental and physical vigor by retaining a childlike curiosity.
Albert Hofmann repeatedly expressed his conviction, that his mystical experiences and his trips into other worlds of consciousness, which he experienced first spontaneously as a child and later during his experiments with psychedelic substances would be the best preparations for the last journey which everybody has to go on at the end of her or his life. He has retained his curiosity for himself for his last journey.
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