It’s the 1940’s. Switzerland. Albert Hofmann has been working for some time with plants while his neighbours have been squabbling. He’s been trying to isolate and synthesise active plant ingredients for potential use in medicine. He’s an interesting man, Albert. He’s willing to get stuck in. His lab has been working on analeptics, and he’s been synthesising a lysergic acid commonly found in ergot – a fungus mostly on rye.
A thousand years before him, the monks of St. Anthony made it their business to try to cure people who had been exposed to this ergot in the flour. It was known to cause psychosis and vascular problems leading to gangrene. You have bad bread, you go nuts and your foot goes rotten. Forged in the fire of The Crusades, you were better off in their hands than anybody else’s if you ended up with ergotism. They’d have your leg off, and they just might not kill you doing it. If they kill you at least you’re with monks so the devil won’t get you.
I was talking about Albert though. He was looking for things that have an effect on the circulation, and this took in ergot. He synthesised a lysergic acid in the late 1930’s, and on April 16th 1943 he got a little bit of it on his fingers. The effect was not unpleasant to him, as he experienced a kaleidoscope of colours as he tried to rest at home after work. This was just a tiny amount absorbed through his fingers, and it had a strong effect. He must have been aware of the history of ergot, tangled up back then in superstition around magic and witchcraft. He must have suspected that he’d found the ingredient that made whole villages go completely mental. As recently as 1951 in the French town of Pont Saint-Esprit, 250 people went nuts after ergot exposure. A kid strangled his own mum. Some guy thought he could fly and jumped off a building. It’s strong stuff.
On April 19th 1943, Albert decided to deliberately ingest 250 micrograms of this refined acid while he was at work – just so he could see what it did. That’s a lot. Your standard tab of acid has between 50 – 150 micrograms, tops. It takes a certain type of personality to do that sort of thing on purpose without knowing what the effect will be. He very quickly realised he was going to need help getting home, and enlisted his lab assistant. As the world around him grew less and less ordinary and his doors of perception opened, he somehow managed to take his bicycle back through the Spring evening to his home. This must have been an extremely difficult trip. I expect it took a long time and involved lots of walking and strange observations and a baffled lab assistant.
“I had great difficulty in speaking clearly and my field of vision fluctuated and swam like an image in a distorted mirror,” he later said. He was frightened he was poisoned and it was only when he had his mind put at rest that he began to find interest and peace within this intense and pretty long experience.
It is this first deliberate acid trip that is now memorialised by fans of Hofmann’s legacy of psychedelics the world over as “bicycle day”. I’ve been thinking about it as I’ve gone about my business. What a remarkable and odd legacy. Just last night I was talking with a man who is experimenting with creating chaos algorithms to feed into the AIs that he’s developing for the government in order to give them a psychedelic experience. He thinks it will improve them as AIs.
The availability of something so completely different from our day to day – I guess that’s our legacy from Hofmann. Nobody could live their lives with that stuff. I can’t imagine it’s addictive as it’s just too intense. But maybe everybody could benefit from a single exposure – like my friend was positing for his AIs. Anyway. That’s what I was thinking about this evening.. Happy bicycle day.