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70 years of LSD

Interview: Zulfikar AbbanyApril 16, 2013

Seventy years ago - on April 16, 1943 - Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally discovered the hallucinogenic effects of LSD-25. Its psychedelic effects came on during his bike ride home.

Picture painted by me, named "Don Juan", it shows a sideways portrait of a old indian with extreme colorful mystic headdress #36326507
Symbolbild - PsychedelischImage: Fotolia/PRILL Mediendesign

Albert Hofmann was 37 years old and a research chemist at the pharmaceutical company Sandoz when he discovered LSD-25. He had been working on the substance since 1938 when he first synthesized the naturally occurring lysergic acid, found in the fungus ergot. His aim had been to research the medicinal properties in plants and develop drugs to help reduce blood pressure in pregnant women. And Hofmann did indeed develop a number of blood pressure medicines in his working life. But on April 16, 1943, he temporarily stepped into another world.

His son, Andreas Hofmann, spoke to DW about the story of LSD.

DW: How did your father discover LSD?

Andreas Hofmann: He was working on a substance, which had been known for a few years, but which was not showing any useful results. But he was convinced the substance had potential, so he continued his research. And while he was working on this substance, the smallest amount of it must have entered his body somehow through the skin - it's possible that he touched his skin with the end of a pipette - and it gave rise to these symptoms that are now well known. And they first emerged as he rode home on his bicycle. He always took his bicycle to work back then - it was eight kilometers to the office - and on his ride home he started to feel strange…

He started to have a psychedelic experience…

Yes, but it wasn't known as such back then. He simply didn't feel well. He went home and lay down, and that's when he started to have these psychedelic hallucinations. He saw strange images. His sense of sight had changed… his sense of sound, all his senses had been altered, and it started to get quite scary. So, my mother rang the family doctor, but he didn't know what was happening, so all he could was treat my father as best as possible using conventional methods. After a while, the hallucinations stopped. Later, they would come back and then go again, and the intervals between these experiences got greater and greater. And so my father started to wonder whether it could have had something to do with the substance he was working on.

So, he was having flashbacks…

Albert Hofmann, discoverer of LSDs (left) and his son, Andreas Hofmann (right). (Copyright: Andreas Hofmann/ privat)
Albert Hofmann in his 80s, with his son AndreasImage: privat


… and what's interesting is that your father didn't discard this experience, but the discovery became something, and that, during the war. But in his book about the experience he referred to LSD as his "problem child." Why?

On the one hand, it was his problem child because LSD had for a long time been viewed positively in research and had been used. LSD had been used and researched by institutes worldwide, especially in the field of psychiatry. And this had been relatively positive. But the turning point came when LSD hit the streets. Put simply, as soon as its effects became known, it was discovered, primarily in the US, as a chemical that let you enter a different world. To begin with, it was used in high society, at parties and the like, and then you had the hippy movement, and it was of course a nice coincidence for its followers to be able to step into another world because they were unhappy with the world as it was back then. It set LSD on a different course from the one which had been intended for it, and my father was really very unhappy about that because in the end the substance was lumped in the same group as every other drug and was banned in the US as well as in Switzerland. That meant that all the research work had to stop, too.

But he did see the positive sides of using the drug - not to drop out - but to expand one's consciousness…

Yes, that is correct. However, people had hoped to use the effects of LSD to find new treatments in psychiatry because they thought it would allow them to delve deeper into the soul. And they had been getting somewhere. But then it was stopped.

But I suppose he wouldn't have encouraged you - in your younger years - to try LSD as a means to expanding your consciousness? Or did you ever try LSD?


Did you ever want to?

Well, I was aware of a lot of what was going on. I was in the US in the 1960s and I saw what this drug had the potential to cause - there were bad experiences, too. And that made me cautious. But my father had also always told me how important it was to prepare yourself for such experiments and experiences, and that if you didn't, it could be a bad experience. And I was always scared of potentially having a bad experience. I also know of friends in the US… Their experiences were not necessarily bad ones, but what they experienced left its mark on the rest of their lives. So, in short, I didn't want a bad experience that would influence the rest of my life.

Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann. (Photo: Reto Gisinim/dpa)
Albert Hofmann first experienced the psychedelic effects of LSD during a bike ride homeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

As much as the discovery of LSD-25 was almost by accident, your father's work seems to represent a style of research that we no longer see today - this idea of trying things out on yourself, learning from the experience, and continuing to research as a result. You still live near Basel, where a number of pharmaceutical companies are based, and I wonder whether you feel that research has become more careful and perhaps even through your father's experience become more restrictive?

Possibly. But the times have changed a lot. You have to remember that the research department at Sandoz was very, very small. My father worked with a handful of colleagues and the whole process was very much different from today. It was quite normal that you would try certain substances on yourself - it was quite common for my father, also with other medicines. And it was absolutely normal that you would include your colleagues in such tests. But that's all unthinkable today.

What of the cultural aspect of LSD - do you think it's important that we know your father's story and that of the drug?

Well, of course, the story has different sides. For one, if we take Novartis [Eds: the pharmaceutical group of which Sandoz is a part], LSD has practically no financial value for the company - certainly not compared to other medicines which my father developed at Sandoz, and which have remained important to this day. And I got a sense of this myself - Mr Vasella [Eds: Daniel Vasella, former Novartis chairman] had no interest in any links with LSD, or to revisit the topic, or support it in any way as others have done. And so I think that's why even internally, in the company itself, there's no trace of LSD or any memory of my father.

How do you feel about that?

It's a real shame - there's no justification for the fact that my father - a scientist - largely became known, simply as this so-called "Mr LSD." Because the other things he developed are very, very important - financially important for the company - and important for people in general. So, it's a shame that his entire work is reduced to that only - in inverted commas - of LSD. On the other hand, there are international efforts to have scientists revisit LSD research and to work on revealing its as yet unknown potential. Right now, here in Switzerland, researchers are working on a pilot project that's officially recognized and authorized, and in the US, researchers have also for some time been working with LSD again - and with some success.

And your father - who lived to the age of 102 - was active for a long time and remained interested in the potential of LSD... to bring out the good aspects of the drug.

Yes, of course, he always was... but he wanted it to be understood as objectively as possible. He didn't only ever push the positive aspects. He also presented the negative aspects and negative potential of LSD, even regarding the abuse of the drug by people who experimented with it. He always wanted to make sure that - as the science stands - the negative aspects were also known.

That's something from which today's pharmaceutical companies could learn - many are still criticized for not releasing their negative results and clinical data.

Yes, but it was a moral thing for my father, and after all the furor around LSD, he felt responsible for everything that had happened and was happening.

Andreas Hofmann is one of Albert Hofmann's four children. Albert Hofmann worked as a research chemist for the Swiss pharmaceutical firm Sandoz from 1927 to 1971 and was researching the active ingredients in medicinal plants when he accidentally discovered the hallucinogenic effects of LSD-25 on April 16, 1943. Albert Hofmann died in 2008.