People with interest in psychedelics know that the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann is credited for the first synthesis of LSD in 1938.1 At the time, he was a research chemist at Sandoz laboratories working on identifying and synthesizing active compounds from medicinal plants.
LSD came into being during a time Hofmann was working with an alkaloid from a fungus called ergot, which infects rye and other cereal grains. The alkaloid was called lysergic acid, and it was the chemical nucleus common to all the ergot alkaloids. Some of these alkaloids had medicinal properties. But often they had unwanted and sometimes severe side effects.
Hofmann was tasked with producing new lysergic acid compounds that did not have side effects. At the same time, he wanted compounds which, based on their chemistry could have pharmacological properties.
So began the story leading up to the synthesis of LSD and the discovery of its psychedelic effects. Below are five interesting facts about Albert Hofmann and his work with LSD over the years.1
- LSD was one of several ergot derivatives Hofmann synthesized. The correct name of LSD is LSD-25. This is because it was the twenty-fifth in the series of lysergic acid derivatives Hofmann produced.
- He synthesized LSD with a purpose in mind. The synthesis of LSD was not an accident. Hoffman did not stumble upon it. He made LSD because he thought it would act as a circulatory and respiratory stimulant. He recognized that its chemical structure was similar to nicotinic acid diethylamide, a similar stimulant (analeptic) of that time.
- After Hofmann synthesized LSD, it sat on the shelf for five years. The initial testing of LSD done at Sandoz showed that LSD had a substantial effect on the uterine tissues, an effect seen with other ergot alkaloids. It also made the experimental animals restless during narcosis. As Hofmann recalled, “The new substance, however, aroused no special interest in our pharmacologists and physicians; testing was therefore discontinued.”
- Hofmann resurrected LSD because of a “feeling” he had. Or, as he called it a “peculiar presentiment.” Hofmann called LSD “relatively uninteresting” at the time he synthesized it. Despite this, five years later, he produced more and sent it to the pharmacological department at Sandoz for further tests. He said he felt that LSD could have properties other than what the initial testing found. He explained, “This was quite unusual; experimental substances, as a rule, were definitely stricken from the research program if once found to be lacking in pharmacological interest.”
- Bicycle Day was Hofmann’s second time on LSD. On Friday, April 16, 1943, Hofmann accidentally ingested LSD while working in his lab. He described a “not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition” with “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” To confirm that LSD was responsible for his experience, he decided to self-test the next workday, Monday, 18, 1943. The story of bicycle day is legendary. Hofmann’s account of his horrific experience self-testing LSD can be explained in part by the dose he took; 250 mcg of the tartaric acid salt. He said he chose the dose by “considering the activity of the ergot alkaloids known at the time.” But at the time, there is no way he could have understood the phenomenal potency of the compound he had created.