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11 January 1906 - 29 April 2008
By Dieter A. Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmüller
Gaia Media Foundation, Basel, Switzerland
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At the age of 102 years, Albert Hofmann died peacefully on the morning of 29 April 2008 in his home near Basel, Switzerland. A few days earlier 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 stayed with him until his last breath.
He is renowned as being one of the most important chemists of our times. He was the discoverer of LSD, which he considered 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 of active agents of important medicinal plants and mushrooms. Under the spell of the consciousness-expanding power of LSD the scientist turned increasingly into a philosopher of nature and a visionary critic 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 world affairs, although he had already decided a few years ago to retire from public life. Nevertheless he welcomed visitors at his home on the Rittimatte, and kept the door open until late in the evening.
He managed to keep his almost childlike curiosity for the wonders of nature and creation. In his "paradise," as he called 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 enjoyment of the living nature all around.
We have lost an outstanding scientist, an important philosopher, a dear and true friend, and a member of the board of the Gaia Media Foundation.
Albert Hofmann was born in January 1906 in the quiet small town of Baden, Switzerland, as the eldest of four children. His father was a toolmaker in a factory where he met Albert's mother-to-be. When his father fell seriously ill Albert had to support the family. That's why he decided on a commercial apprenticeship. At the same time he started studying Latin and other languages, since he wanted to take his A-levels, which he succeeded in doing at a private school, funded by a godfather.
In 1926, at the age of twenty, Albert Hofmann began to study chemistry at the University of Zurich. Four years later he obtained his doctorate with distinction. Subsequently he worked at the Sandoz pharmaceutical-chemical research laboratory in Basel, a company to which he proved his loyalty continuously for more than four decades. (In 1996 Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy merged to become Novartis.) That's where he mainly worked with medicinal plants and mushrooms. He was specifically interested in alkaloids (nitrogen compounds) of ergot, a cereal fungus. In 1938 he isolated the basic component of all therapeutically essential ergot alkaloids, lysergic acid; he combined it with a series of chemicals, then tested the effects of these lysergic acid derivatives for action as circulatory and respiratory stimulants — among others LSD-25 (the 25th in the series, lysergic acid diethylamide). However, because the effects observed fell short of expectations the pharmacologists at Sandoz lost interest in it.
Five years later, following a "peculiar presentiment," Albert Hofmann resumed investigation of LSD-25. On 16 April 1943 while working on synthesizing the compound, he was overcome by unusual sensations — "a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness" — which caused 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 set out on the first voluntary LSD trip in the history of mankind. Because he did not yet know the enormous potency of the drug, he took 250 micrograms, a fairly high dose, and got to know the hallucinogenic power of the substance in all its intensity.
With his discovery of LSD Albert Hofmann caused a snowball effect, which quickly turned into an avalanche. It influenced 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."
Albert Hofmann made essential contributions to research in this field. In 1958 he was the first to succeed in isolating the psychoactive substances psilocybin and psilocin from Mexican magic mushrooms (Psilocybe mexicana). In Ololiuqui, the seeds of a climbing plant (Morning Glory), he found substances related to LSD (the monoethylamide). He isolated and synthesized substances found in important medicinal plants in order to study their effects. His basic research blessed Sandoz with several successful remedies, including Hydergine, effective in geriatrics, Dihydergot, a circulation- and blood-pressure stabilizing medicine, and Methergine, an active agent used in gynecology.
Albert Hofmann stayed with Sandoz until his retirement in 1971, finally as head of the research department for natural medicines. Thereafter he devoted much of his time to writing and lecturing. He increasingly won recognition for his scientific pioneering ventures: he was given honorary doctorates by the ETH Zurich, the University of Stockholm and the Berlin Free University, and he was nominated for the Nobel Prize.
His outstanding contributions to research were rightly honored, but Albert Hofmann's life's work comprised much more. From the start he took a favorable view of efforts by physicians and psychotherapists to include LSD in new approaches to the treatment of many chronic diseases. But LSD isn't only useful with special diagnoses — it was Albert Hofmann's firm belief that the "psychedelic" potential of this "wonder drug" could be beneficial for us all. In LSD-induced altered states of consciousness its discoverer didn't see psychotic delusions of a chemically manipulated mind, but rather windows to a higher reality — true spiritual experiences during which a normally deeply buried potential of our mind reveals itself, namely, our unity with the divine aspect of creation. "The one-sided belief of the scientific view of life is based on a far-reaching misunderstanding," Hofmann says in his book Insight-Outlook.
Certainly, everything it [this view] 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 lack of a philosophical basis for making sense of life." Starting from such experiences as LSD provides, 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 more profound meaning" — in 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 happen that scientific research and the previous destroyers of nature — technology and industry — will serve the purpose of returning our world to what it formerly was: an earthly Garden of Eden.
With this message the genius chemist turns into a profound philosopher of nature and visionary critic of contemporary culture.
Albert Hofmann never abandoned his critical stance toward the LSD euphoria of the hippie- and flower-power-driven, but that he fathered a "problem child" he had already emphasized with the title of one of his best-known works. He always underlined the risks of uncontrolled use. On the other hand he never tired of emphasizing the basic difference between LSD and most other illicit drugs: even if used repeatedly, LSD is not addictive; it doesn't reduce one's awareness; and taken in normal doses it's absolutely non-toxic.
He could never understand the complete demonizing of psychedelics, as done by the mass media, conservative politicians, and governments from the sixties onward. For him, there is no reason why mentally stable persons in the right set and setting shouldn't enjoy LSD. He was all the more disappointed when, in the late sixties, he saw it happen that the use of LSD was criminalized worldwide 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, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, led 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 just shortly before his 102nd birthday, he was pleased to note that the first LSD study with humans received approval from the Federal Office of Public Health in Bern, which he called the "fulfillment of my heart's desire."
His life was an ideal for us as to 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, was the best preparation for the last journey which everybody has to take at the end of their life. He retained this curiosity about his last journey right up to the end.
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