Timothy Leary

Academic, Advocate, Scientist

Timothy Francis Leary (1920-1996) was a psychologist, researcher, writer, and controversial counterculture icon known for advocating the use of LSD, psilocybin, and other psychedelics under controlled conditions. Several of his catchphrases like “turn on, tune in, drop out” echoed throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

Early Life

Leary was born in Springfield, Massachusetts and attended the College of the Holy Trinity in Worcester from 1938 to 1940. He left to accept an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. While attending the academy he received several demerits for bad behavior and violations of the honor code for which he was asked to resign. He refused and was shunned (silenced) by his fellow cadets. He was acquitted in a court martial, but the shunning went on and he continually received demerits for minor rule violations. After West Point reexamined his case, Leary resigned from the Academy and received an honorable discharge.

Leary transferred to the University of Alabama in 1941 and studied psychology and biology. He received top grades and joined the ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps). But, he was expelled after spending the night in a female dormitory. His expulsion caused him to lose his deferment, and he was drafted into the Army in 1943. Sergeant Leary was honorably discharged in January 1946 having received several awards including the Good Conduct Medal.

In 1947, Leary received a Master of Science degree from the State College of Washington. He went on to earn his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of California-Berkeley in 1950.1

Leary served as the director of psychiatric research at the Kaiser Family Foundation from 1954 to 1958. During this time he wrote The Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality which the Annual Review of Psychology called the most important book on psychology of 1957. He then joined the faculty at Harvard in 1959 where he met and began working with Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) at the Harvard Center for Research in Personality.

The Turning Point

In 1960, Leary traveled to Mexico and had his first experience with psilocybin mushrooms. The experience dramatically changed his thinking and the course of his life. When he returned from Mexico later that year, he and Alpert formed the Harvard Psilocybin Project.

Leary and Alpert wanted to investigate the effects of psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin (both legal at the time) on human consciousness. They obtained psilocybin for the studies from Albert Hofmann who was the first to synthesize it at Sandoz Laboratories in Germany a few years earlier.2,3 The psilocybin was administered to graduate student volunteers and their experiences were recorded in real time.

The Harvard Psilocybin Project

By 1962, the experiments had generated controversy over their scientific merit and safety, even though LSD and psilocybin were legal at the time. There were also rumors that Leary and Alpert pressured graduate students to participate and even recruited undergraduates in violation of the rules of the study. Several Letters to the Editor and editorials published in the Harvard Crimson expressed concern and were critical of the work.4 The project was shut down in 1962 before the study was completed. Under pressure, Harvard fired Leary in 1963, saying he was not living up to his teaching duties. Richard Alpert was also fired the same year for giving psychedelics to undergraduates.

Two completed studies that came out of the Harvard Psilocybin Project were the Marsh Chapel Experiment and the Concord Prison Experiment. The Marsh Chapel Experiment is also known as the Good Friday Experiment because it began on Good Friday and used volunteer graduate students from divinity schools. Leary and Alpert wanted to find out if psilocybin helped religious people have spiritual experiences. The double-blind study compared the effects of psilocybin to those of niacin used as an active placebo. Compared to the niacin group, 80% of the participants in the psilocybin group reported profound religious experiences. These results supported the idea that psychedelics can help people have spiritual experiences.

Leary and Alpert’s Concord Prison Experiment was designed to see if psilocybin used with psychotherapy would reduce recidivism (repeat offenses) of released prisoners. At the time, the average recidivism rate for US prisoners was about 60%. The recidivism rate for the prisoners who received psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy dropped to 20%. Leary and Alpert noted that a follow-up support program after being released from prison was important for the success of participants.

More information on Timothy Leary is found on the Harvard University website.