Bicycle Day

Ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna delves into the events that led to the first synthesis of lysergic acid diethylamide in an introduction to Brian Blomerth’s latest work about Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann

The legend has been told and retold many times, to the point where it is hard to distinguish myth from history, but, considering that LSD itself is an almost mythical entity—and yet exists—perhaps this is appropriate. Anyone whose life has been touched by psychedelics, especially LSD, will be familiar with the story, which Brian Blomerth relates in a charming and amusing way. In the late 1930s, Albert Hofmann was a young chemist working for Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland. He was tasked with investigating the alkaloids of ergot, a parasitic fungus that grows on rye and other grains. Hofmann was seeking semisynthetic ergot derivatives that were active as respiratory and circulatory stimulants. He was working with lysergic acid, the basic chemical “scaffold” of ergot alkaloids, and created an analog of a known stimulant, nikethamide or nicotinic acid diethylamide, marketed as Coramine. By introducing the diethylamide substitution into the lysergic acid nucleus, he hoped to develop an analog of Coramine that was an effective stimulant but lacked any effect on the uterus (ergot alkaloids are well-known for their stimulating effect on uterine tissues and are still used in obstetrics for this purpose). LSD-25 was the result: the twenty-fifth in a series of ergot derivatives that Hofmann synthesised. When he first synthesised this compound, Hofmann turned it over to the pharmacology department, whose staff screened it in the standard battery of animal bioassays. It was unremarkable. With a sigh, Hofmann put it on the shelf, went to work on other compounds, and forgot about it. It was one of the darkest epochs in European history: less than a month previously, Nazi troops had overrun Czechoslovakia; exactly one week earlier, on November 9, the infamous Nazi Kristallnacht had resulted in the arrest of more than thirty thousand Jews in Germany and Austria. The Holocaust had begun.

Flash forward to April 16, 1943. Hofmann, responding to what he described in his book LSD: My Problem Child as a “peculiar presentiment,” decided to revisit the interesting but apparently ineffective compound he had synthesised five years before. Being Swiss, and being the meticulous chemist he was, Hofmann did not simply retrieve the five-year-old sample from the chemical archives. Instead, since it was impossible to know whether the older sample had undergone some degree of chemical degradation, he synthesised a fresh batch. It was this decision, his response to his “peculiar presentiment,” that changed history (and Hofmann) forever. Somehow, in the course of the synthesis (so the story goes), Hofmann was accidentally exposed to what must have been a very tiny amount of the newly synthesised LSD-25. He became nauseous and slightly dizzy. He could not continue his work in the lab and rode home on his bicycle, where he fell into a dreamlike state. His imagination was highly stimulated and a kaleidoscopic cascade of visions crowded in behind his closed eyelids. After a couple of hours, the visions faded. Three days later, on April 19, 1943, on the hunch that the LSD he had recently synthesised might have somehow contributed to his odd experience, Hofmann went back to the lab and deliberately ingested what he thought could not possibly be an active dose: 0.25 milligrams, or 250 µg. We now know that 250 µg is a very substantial dose of LSD, which is still recognised as the most potent psychoactive substance known. On this day, Hofmann had the first full LSD experience ever documented. Once again, he left the lab to return home on his bicycle, this time with the very fabric of reality melting and transforming around him. Thus unfolded the most significant day in Albert’s life, and, I might argue, in human history: the date that has become immortalised and celebrated as Bicycle Day. 

LSD is an example of all that is good about humanity: a triumph of science, curiosity, imagination, spirit, and the unending search for meaning and truth. Hofmann’s skilled hands created a miraculous molecule that was (and still is) one of the most significant tools ever discovered for the understanding of the mind and consciousness. In the years that followed, LSD spawned a revolution in neuroscience (indeed, modern neuroscience would not exist were it not for LSD). It led to the development of therapeutic modalities for a spectrum of human ailments that may yet revolutionise medicine, despite their brutal repression in the late 1960s, and it catalysed a social and cultural revolution on a global scale that continues to rock society. Not bad for a compound that was discovered by “accident.”

It was, in fact, such an unlikely concatenation of circumstances that one has to wonder if it really was accidental. Hofmann writes in his book that he was prone to spontaneous mystical experiences from early childhood. Is it possible that his first “trip,” on April 16, did not result from accidental exposure to traces of the compound? Rather, could it have been a spontaneous mystical experience deriving from his “peculiar presentiment” that there was something special about the compound he had synthesized five years previously? LSD is the archetypal psychedelic; does one create, or discover, a compound like LSD? I think it is more the case that one incarnates such a molecule. It always existed; like the philosopher’s stone, like a soul waiting to be born, LSD resides in some celestial realm of the collective unconscious, an unpolished jewel existing in potential only. In potential—until the day that Albert’s “peculiar presentiment” led him to take another look at that unremarkable compound, twenty-fifth in a series, that failed all the animal tests, nothing special about it… nothing special, that is, until it called to him again, across five years of time, from the neat ranks of long-forgotten vials of hundreds of cast-off samples gathering dust in the chemical archives, as if to send a message: “Go on, Albert, have another look at me. You’ve missed something. You’re going to need me one of these days.” It was on that very day, Bicycle Day, 1943, that this discovery took place in the city of Basel, a city steeped in the legacy of Paracelsus and European alchemical traditions. It was on that very day that hundreds of years of alchemical failures finally succeeded in the laboratory of Sandoz Pharmaceuticals: the day that Albert took his transcendental creation, a true philosopher’s stone, out for a spin and changed the world forever.

Brian Blomerth’s Bicycle Day is published by Anthology Editions and available for purchase from Anthology