Counterculture

The Harvard Psychedelic Club

Did LSD really kill the 1950s?

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Arguably the second most-memorable Good Friday in history took place in the basement of Boston University's Marsh Chapel on April 20, 1962, when a graduate student under the academic direction of Timothy Leary dosed 10 subjects with LSD and another 10 with a placebo. Among those getting actual acid was the generally sober and eminently respectable MIT religion professor Huston Smith, whose understanding of divinity was forever changed.

Smith was known as the author of The Religions of Man and was no slouch when it came to grokking theology in all its manifestations. But Smith's "encounter that Good Friday," writes religion journalist Don Lattin in his thoroughly engaging (if sometimes overblown) The Harvard Psychedelic Club, "was the most powerful experience he would ever have of God's personal nature . . . From that moment on, he knew that life is a miracle, every moment of it, and that the only appropriate way to respond and be mindful of that gift was to share it with the rest of the world."

Packing his book with strange, wonderful scenes, Lattin argues that America would never be the same because of an unlikely quartet that did time—and drugs—at Harvard in the early 1960s. Along with Leary and Smith, the "psychedelic club" included psychologist Richard Alpert, who would go on to co-author a hugely popular version of The Tibetan Book of the Dead with Leary and recreate himself as the countercultural mystic Baba Ram Dass, and Andrew Weil, the alternative medicine guru whose undergraduate exposes of Leary and Alpert's unorthodox methods ultimately led to their flight from Harvard. Lattin enthuses that this strange quartet "changed the way we see the very nature of reality."

By kickstarting the drug-drenched 1960s, he writes, the club didn't just tune in, turn on, drop out of normal society, it "changed nothing less than the way we look at mind, body and spirit." Lattin credits his foursome with pushing America from "mechanistic thinking to mysticism" and "from the scientific to the shamanic."

All four of the club members went on differing levels of renown, infamy, or enlightenment. Leary became the godfather of the counterculture, an irrepressible trickster figure who hung with the Beatles, and served time in prison and exile before becoming an early apostle of cyberspace whose ashes were shot into orbit after his death in 1996. Ram Dass earnestly pursued strains of Eastern mysticism, wrote the hippie classic "Be Here Now," struggled with his homosexuality, co-founded the Seva Foundation, which directs health and welfare projects in India, and still works to personify "compassion in action" even after a debilitating stroke.

Andrew Weil became an M.D., spent years trying to atone for his role in blowing the whistle on Leary and Alpert, has written in defense of altered consciousness, and ultimately created a massive, multimillion dollar industry in alternative medicine.

Now 90, Smith is the least well-known of the four. He stayed within the academic establishment, became a leading theorist of religious pluralism, and has seen his The Religions of Man sell well over 2 million copies.

They are all interesting characters, to be sure. But did they really "kill the Fifties and usher in a new age for America"? Lattin offers up little more than assertion by way of proof. The oft-pilloried 50s—the decade that produced Catcher in the Rye, On the RoadAtlas Shrugged, and rock 'n' roll—were hardly the hotbed of repressive conformity that Lattin assumes. And it is far from clear precisely what were the "progressive visions" of the '60s and which were the destructive ones. Their contributions are worth reflecting on, but as with psychedelics themselves, it's worth not over-selling the effects.

Nick Gillespie is the editor-in-chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv. This article originally appeared in the New York Post.

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  1. But Smith’s “encounter that Good Friday,” writes religion journalist Don Lattin in his thoroughly engaging (if sometimes overblown) The Harvard Psychedelic Club, “was the most powerful experience he would ever have of God’s personal nature . . . From that moment on, he knew that life is a miracle, every moment of it, and that the only appropriate way to respond and be mindful of that gift was to share it with the rest of the world.”

    That’s because he was given the good shit.

    1. I was given the (exceptionally) “good shit” when I was in junior high back in about 1970. Breathing walls and a belief that I knew everyone on earth was hardly an insight into the nature of God. Rather, it was just the brain fucked up on acid.

      1. IMO that’s a bit early to be trying that stuff. Would you agree?

        1. Yeah, that is way too young. I don’t think anyone should be messing around with that stuff until their brain is fully developed. Some people never should do it at all.

      2. Breathing walls and revelations are pretty standard stuff with hallucinogenics, dude. Everyone gets them.

        1. IOW, it ain’t no look at god’s personal nature, just fucked up brains.

          FTR, I consumed it unwittingly at a sleep-over.

          1. Ah jeez, someone slipped it to you? What scum.

            1. Someone did that to me when I was a teenager right before I had to go to work. Talk about a bad trip. I was really pissed off about, not cool at all.

  2. Salinger managed to get in a nice 91: J.D Salinger, 1919-2010

  3. I wonder how important this guy was to the psychodelic 60s:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Evans_Schultes

  4. Dr. Leary is the only famous person I’ve ever met. It was during a lengthly lecture he gave when I was doing a brief stint in college. A life-changing experience, that was.

  5. Lattin credits his foursome with pushing America from “mechanistic thinking to mysticism” and “from the scientific to the shamanic.”

    Is that an endorsement or an indictment?

  6. Slap the enlightened. I believe the answer to your question would be Yes.

    An indictment by the reviewer and an endorsement by the author. Recall that the author is promoting progressivism.

  7. I can’t wait for the last “baby boomer” to be gone… I get tired of hearing how the 60’s were all that and how everything changed in 60’s blah blah blah
    Fuck off and die already

  8. I can’t wait for the last “baby boomer” to be gone… I get tired of hearing how the 60’s were all that and how everything changed in 60’s blah blah blah
    Fuck off and die already

    1. I’m a “baby boomer”, and I could’nt agree with you more. I lived through all that crap, and most of what you hear or read about it is bullshit.

      1. except anything Jann Wenner publishes about it.

    2. Agreed! How many freakin commercials do we have to endure that start with some dusty song and a lily white chick in a sundress and a flower painted on her cheek? Or some old burnout telling us about “This ain’t your daddy’s retirement plan!” (btw, how is that working out? Bet you wish you wouldn’t have listened to DENNIS FREAKING HOPPER for you retirement plan!?)

      1. I would if it was his character from Apocalypse Now.

    3. I hate boomers. Their whole attitude of “we experimented with drugs in the 60s, back when it was innocent, but no no, kids today shouldn’t it’s not innocent anymore, it’s scary and dangerous.” really pisses me off. I’m sick of being told by boomers that everything I eat is poison and everything I love is deadly dangerous.

      1. We are despicable, but for some reason I could never hear our drummer.

        If you want to eat, drink, smoke, poke, wear, ride, etc., etc., it then you have my blessing. Life was never to be without risk any more than it was to be without freedom. Freedom itself is risky, and life without freedom is meaningless, it is existence nothing more.

  9. I guess some people like to have a Big Bang moment for general trends in history. It seems to me there was a gradual breakdown in the credibility of authority figures after WWII that maybe made it possible for the sort of ultra-skepticism that LSD provides to take root. Why the breakdown in respect for authority? Beats me.

    1. As I remember it, they weren’t that respectable.

    2. Trotskyism among professors educating the children of the upper middle and upper classes, the same classes we select our political class from. If the ideology had taken root in the lower classes they’d seen no problem using the traditional force to maintain authority. When people hit a rock wall they seldom continue to throw themselves at it, but if they hit it and it cracks, then they see it can be breeched.

      The authority needed challenged in my opinion, it had strayed from the ideals this country was founded upon. Too bad it was by those with all the wrong reasons, the building of an even more authoritarian system.

  10. A small group of acid heads telling you they changed US culture. Really? What next – an increase in the use of pot is what led to increased industrial productivity in the US?

    It makes as much sense.

    Acidheads always overestimate their importance. CAUSE THEY’RE ON ACID!

    1. Yeah, like, what were the names of those guys? The Beatles? Or that other guy, whatshisname, Steve Jobs? Completely useless, the lot of them.

      Nope, acid didn’t change anything.

      1. Ah, that’s why steve jobs sells overpriced trash for snobs? Because he’s on acid?

      2. I didn’t realize the Beatles were the subject of this article, Einsteincat.

  11. Once a year is enough, these days…

  12. I recall a description of the study.

    The placebo group received a small dose of adrenaline which caused a slight increase in heart rate. This group of divinity students walked around on Good Friday saying things like, “I think a feel a little funny.”

    The LSD group of students would say things like, “I see God”

  13. my bad memory….drugs?

    nicotine not adrenaline

    here is a description of the study

    http://druglibrary.org/SCHAFFER/lsd/doblin.htm

    and here is some more info from a pro drug site

    http://www.yoism.org/?q=node/52

    scroll down to marsh chapel

  14. http://www.yoism.org/?q=node/151

    has an article written in 1994 about the experiment

  15. Of course LSD and psychedelic research really got going in the 50s, albeit in academic circles and through government experiments such as MK-Ultra. The 50s had a pretty strong neuropharmacological culture – tranquilizers as well as amphetamines were widely prescribed and LSD was seen as a potentially therapeutic tool. After the Harvard issue, of course, and because of people who had been experimented upon (and liked it) such as Ken Kesey, acid spread among the Youth, as the Establishment would say, became condemned for perniciousness and was banned. So, no, I don’t think LSD killed the 50s as much as the assassination of JFK, the Free Speech Movement/Baby Boomer political consciousness and Vietnam did.

    1. Maybe my brain is all messed up so my memories aren’t in order, but to the best of my recollection the 1st of January 1960 killed the 1950s.

  16. The 60’s weren’t that great. I get sick of hearing about how “awesome” and “changing” it was. Everybody to some extent is nostalgic but these boomers take it to the nth degree almost saying their life time and decade is better than everyone elses. Egotistical if you ask me.

    1. I lived through the ’60s, but enjoyed nothing stronger than a little pot. The age was great, but that was because I was in my teens and 20’s. I think everyone enjoys this time in their life.

      But it is not the boomers talking about the boomers, but the media that keeps this shit going. I believe I am more sick of this shit than most of the people born after my generation.

      Do you always talk about yourself as Gen Xer’s, or Gen Yer’s? But I have heard enough crap about these people to last a lifetime. Perhaps it is the media keeping this going for this newer generation.

  17. “from the scientific to the shamanic.”

    Which is why today, ignorant people follow the great Al Gore shaman because they have no clue about science. Without a grounding in basic science, it is a trivial task to lead people into all kinds of useless directions.

    1. You certainly seem to be on to something there. Scientific method is absent, perhaps they’ve replaced it with drinking Al Gore’s urine after he’s ingested Amanita muscaria. I have noticed a few of them do have breath that smells like stale piss.

      As a fellow old man you probably remember the tarnish WWII left on science. Most often the scientist was portrayed as a sick and evil monster in films and books. The sad thing about all this pseudo-scientific nonsense I expect will be a new public mistrust of science in general.

  18. oops looks like your article made a mistake, they were given psilocybin NOT LSD!

  19. One danger of LSD and such is this “religious conversion”–pseudo-revelations taken at face value. Like any religious experience, LSD revelation seems to activate people’s “certainty centers”, the way heroin activates their pleasure centers, and can cause long-term damage to their skepticism. But most seem to be fine, in the end, unless they choose to live apart in the company of the similarly-impaired.

  20. Marcia Moore, a yoga teacher who froze to death when she went outside and climbed a tree in scanty clothing, amidst mid-winter snow, said that ketamine was much, much more fun than LSD.

    You can still get it from a vet, if you know how to go about it.

    1. And some people enjoy PCP a great deal. Ketamine is a whole different class of drug. She may well have enjoyed it much more, but I’d guess she wasn’t incredibly bright considering her tree climbing demise.

  21. Did LSD kill JFK?

    thedaylighttest.com

  22. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke.

  23. This article is old, but I find it hilarious that the Google Ad showing up on this article at the moment is a body make-up that specifically mentions covering up tattoos as part of its purpose. It also mentions stretch marks and varicose veins, but the picture shown is of someone covering up an arm tattoo with make-up.

  24. wolves gray are unable to bide time until the final “baby boomer” that they are long gone… auto repair obtain sick and tired with researching the way the 60’s were being almost all which in addition to just how every thing transformed within 60’s blah blah blah
    Fuck off in addition to cease to live by now.

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