News at Medicine - November 2011 - Historical trials with LSD

Historical trials with LSD
November 21, 2011
Although the drug LSD is known most widely as a recreational drug of the 1960s, it was used in the 1950s as a treatment for mental illness and alcoholism. Many of these experiments took place at the Provincial Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan.
Dr. Nigel Rusted and Dr. Erika Dyck

On Nov. 18 Dr. Erika Dyck, Canada Research Chair in History of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, presented the Dr. Nigel Rusted lectureship in Medical Humanities on the topic Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD Experimentation and the Post-Second World War Pharmacological Revolution.

LSD was first synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in the Sandoz (now Novartis) laboratories in Basel, Switzerland in 1938, although it was another five years before its psychedelic properties were found.

Dr. Dyck described coming across research about experiments in Saskatchewan – where she grew up – with LSD as a drug to understand schizophrenia and, later, to treat alcoholism.

Psychiatrists, including Humphry Osmond who coined the term “psychedelic” while working in Saskatchewan, believed that the successful treatment of alcoholism with biochemical means would scientifically prove that the condition was a disease and not the result of a weak or immoral character.

“I found psychedelic studies were taken quite seriously and using LSD as a treatment for alcoholism gained momentum,” said Dr. Dyck. “Support for this treatment brought together an unlikely coalition of allies including temperance supporters and some church groups.”

Initial experiments demonstrated unprecedented rates of abstinence among alcoholics treated with LSD. The approach gained support from the provincial government, local chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Bureau of Alcoholism, all of which collaborated in a public campaign that supported LSD treatments.

In the course of her research Dr. Dyck interviewed three men who had stayed sober for 40 years after being treated with LSD. She cautioned that the process of choosing patients, the settings and the clinical practice all played a part in these experimental successes. 

But as LSD spread out from the clinical setting onto university campuses and then into the wider population of North America, the media and the public began to turn against the drug. From promising early news stories about the great possibility of LSD, they turned to horror stories.

Sandoz halted LSD production in August of 1965 after growing governmental protests at its proliferation among the general populace. The National Institute of Mental Health in the United States distributed LSD on a limited basis for scientific research. Scientific study of LSD ceased around 1980 as research funding declined, and governments became wary of permitting such research fearing that the results of the research might encourage illicit LSD use.

Dr. Dyck’s engaging talk provided insight into the history of experimental psychiatry and the use of LSD during the 1950s. She is the author of Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus.