It may have become popularised in the 60's among students and hippies with its "turn on, tune in, drop out" mentality. But its origin is very different...


The origins of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide, or LSD, were a far cry from the swinging sixties. It was first synthesised in 1938, from a substance known as ergot, a fungus found in rye and certain other grains. Dr Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered the drug, was researching the possible medical benefits of ergot derivatives when he stumbled across the hallucinogenic properties of LSD.


Those properties are potent: a tiny dose is enough to induce a trip lasting eight to ten hours. Users report time and space distortions, intense visual and auditory experiences, mood swings and heightened self-awareness. LSD does not have to be swallowed: it can be absorbed through the skin or even the ear.

For many years, mental health professionals conducted research into LSD's potential therapeutic effects on people suffering from various psychological disorders. In the early 1960s, two Harvard psychology lecturers, Dr Timothy Leary and Dr Richard Alpert, began to experiment more intensively with hallucinogenic drugs, administering them to graduate students and intellectuals.


Harvard fired the pair in 1963 but they carried on their work, promoting LSD as the drug that would open the human mind to previously uncharted areas. Leary began touring college campuses, giving lectures on the hallucinogenic experience. He encouraged his audiences to "turn on, tune in, drop out", a phrase that enraged the U.S. establishment, who believed he was undermining society.

In fact, America's youth didn't need much encouragement from Leary. Radicalised by the civil rights movement and by opposition to the Vietnam War, they were already experimenting with a wide range of illegal drugs. Hippies enthusiastically embraced LSD and continued to do so even after the U.S. government banned the drug.

Discussion in academic circles about the potential medical benefits of LSD never really went away. In recent years, doctors have been using hallucinogenic drugs in limited trials to treat people suffering from terminal illnesses.