A Fateful Trip: “Hofmann’s Potion” and the Discovery of LSD
How egghead PhDs discovered the headiest drug of choice for the counter-culture.
Today, all the run of the mill stoners are anticipating tomorrow’s designated smoke-up date of “4/20” (The date’s significance is appropriately hazy: some say it’s a police code, others trace it back to a ‘70s in-joke, but either way it’s the hallowed pothead holiday). Mind you, the true drug connoisseurs aren’t pre-gaming by stocking up on potato chips, killer tunes, and fresh hackie-sacks. They’re already glued to their recliner, or wandering the woods, straight tripping balls!
See, April 19th marks the day in 1943 that Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann “discovered” d-lysergic acid diethylamide, a.k.a LSD, while researching a cure for migraine headaches. He accidentally absorbed a small bit through his finger and took note of its well, evidentiary effects. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Hoffmann’s Potion revisits the early days of LSD, featuring a cast of now-elderly scientists (most in quite good health) who constitute a secret society privy to this new portal to perception.
When Dr. Hofmann stumbled upon LSD, it wasn’t yet the stuff of R. Crumb comics, nutty rumors (it stays in your spine!), and Roger Corman exploitation flicks. It was simply a bold game-changing chemical that Hoffmann and a growing contingent of scientists and entrepreneurs (like Albert Hubbard, the so-called “Johnny Appleseed of LSD”) believed in because they felt it provided insight into psychological disorders. LSD’s true story, according to Hofmann’s Potion, is the tale of a bunch of really smart, really serious guys who discovered a medical – and perhaps spiritual – breakthrough.
A wry smile comes across the scientists’ faces as they recall this time (seriously, imagine a bunch of stuffed-shirt PhDs in the 1950s basically inventing how to drop acid). Mostly, they bemoan the drug’s shift into popular consciousness, thanks mostly to LSD advocate Timothy Leary’s public grandstanding. The film is harsh but fair to Leary, though it does place the drug’s eventual criminalization on the brash Harvard professor’s ego-tripping, which made further scientific study impossible and confined the drug to underground circles.
Watch Hofmann’s Potion on Fandor.
Hofmann’s Potion is the sober person’s drug movie. Director Connie Littlefield even-handedly approaches the persistent controversy over psychedelics by quietly dismissing the 60s revolution in favor of the drug’s pre-flower power history. Stylistically, Littlefield eschews the “experimental” film grammar of acid flicks for a more contemplative representation of the drug’s effects. The few shots that evoke the tripping experience are unexpectedly subtle, earthy shots of nature. No amorphous blobs of color, three-headed dragons, or winged unicorns to be found.
Some of the film’s most fascinating footage is of actual LSD therapy sessions that were intensely controlled and attentive to patients’ needs and fears. These sessions took place on a couch with pleasant music playing, little to no light and a trained scientist at the ready. The goal was to avoid the dreaded “bad trip,” by controlling the environment and assuring patients they were in good hands. (Imagine that outdoor music festival where you ingested two too many tabs, and the buddy who came to your rescue with a water bottle and orange slices, only this time he has a PhD and an actual clue what the hell he’s doing.)
Even more interesting is how all of the people involved, from the patients to the many scientists, were – to borrow acid-head parlance – “squares.” A session of LSD therapy patients, all hard-working Average Joe types, completely in-awe of the feelings the drug elicited, is telling of the drug’s perceived positive effects in the pre-hippie dippy era, back when LSD’s mystique wasn’t yet saddled with goofy guru slang, half-hearted mysticism, or well, much of anything at all. Hofmann’s Potion doesn’t exactly de-romanticize psychedelics, but it does boldly assert that the drug’s peak potential came well before it penetrated popular culture.
Much of the film, particularly these working class therapy sessions, hints at a what-if scenario in which LSD became a ubiquitous part of psychoanalysis. Though that certainly would have stripped the drug of its counter-culture luster, it may have, if Hofmann and company are to be believed, had an effect on the world beyond marking the excesses of the baby boomer generation. Today, only illicitly, it still blows the minds of some of today’s undergrads.
Brandon Soderberg is a critic and writer based in Baltimore, MD. He writes a weekly hip-hop column for Spin.com and has contributed to The Village Voice, Pitchfork, Baltimore City Paper, and the Independent Weekly.
Watch Hofmann’s Potion on Fandor.