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.