The LSD Experiments

By bob k

How could Bill W., Grand Poobah of sobriety ever have allowed himself to join the Learyesque acidheads and “turn on, tune in, and drop out?”
(Bill W. and Mr. Wilson, Matthew Raphael, p. 164)

 The Juice

Twenty-five years ago, O.J. Simpson was just an ex-football player, a commentator, and a car rental spokesperson. While some of his movie acting may have bordered on the criminal, he had not yet been the centerpiece in 1995’s “trial of the century”. Fifty years ago, Simpson had no national notoriety at all. There had been no NFL rushing record (1973), nor even the Heisman Trophy (1968) awarded to the best college football player in America.

Sixty years ago, O.J. Simpson was just another black kid in a poor neighborhood in San Francisco. There had as yet been no “If it does not fit, you must acquit”. There had been no “Miami’s got the oranges, but Buffalo’s got the ‘Juice’”. In a very real sense, O.J. Simpson was not yet O.J. Simpson.

Of course, it is difficult, if not impossible, to erase from the American consciousness, the various events that brought both fame and infamy to the onetime young kid in “the projects”. Perhaps it is even more difficult to imagine a time when LSD was not yet LSD, as we are familiar with it today. Timothy Leary’s admonition to “tune in, turn on, and drop out” has been with us since the mid 1960’s.

When Bill Wilson first tried LSD, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles, in 1956, the LSD world of Timothy Leary and hippies was fully ten years away. LSD was a lab experiment. The street drug incarnation of LSD simply hadn’t yet happened. In a very real sense, in 1956, LSD was not yet LSD.

Ernie Kurtz

In the 1970s, “Ernest Kurtz was given full and complete access to the archives of the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous in New York. His unhindered research, coupled with extensive interviews of surviving early members and friends of AA, has resulted in an account with documented accuracy”. (Not-God, Ernest Kurtz, About the Book, p. vi)

Mr. Kurtz came to the study of history after professional experience in both religion and psychology. His study of the genesis and the workings of AA led to a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University, in 1978.

In the course of this research, details of Bill Wilson’s LSD experimentation were uncovered. “An AA trustee had asked me to consider excluding that part of my dissertation (Not-God) from publication, but after consultation with my mentors, I decided to retain it as an essential part of the story.” (The Collected Ernie Kurtz, p. 39)

Dr. Albert Hoffman

The chemical, d-lysergic acid diethylamide, was first produced in 1938 by a Swiss research chemist employed by Sandoz Laboratories, now Novartis, since a 1996 merger. Dr. Albert Hoffman only later, in 1943, discovered LSD’s properties. Hoffman’s findings “attracted interest, for scientists saw in LSD-25, as it was then called, ‘a drug which would make a normal person psychotic.’ That implied a chemical basis for insanity”. (Collected Kurtz, p. 41)

A chemical cause suggested a possible chemical cure. Sandoz began clinical trials and marketed the substance, from 1947 through the mid-1960s, under the name Delysid as a psychiatric drug, thought useful for treating a wide variety of mental ailments, ranging from alcoholism to sexual deviancy. Sandoz suggested in its marketing literature that psychiatrists take LSD themselves, to gain a better subjective understanding of the schizophrenic experience, and many did exactly that and so did other scientific researchers.

A Time Magazine feature in 1954 had produced a flood of attention to the Sandoz product. “In the 1950s, LSD was widely thought to have psycho-therapeutic potential. Research…was undertaken by some of the most prestigious medical and scientific institutions in the country.” (Bill W., Francis Hartigan, p. 177)

Hoffer and Osmond

Doctors Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmond worked in a mental hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada, “treating alcoholics as well schizophrenics, and their interest centered on patients suffering both disorders. These were their toughest cases, for the schizophrenia seemed to impede the kind of insightful experience thought to be required if an alcoholic was to stop drinking”. (Collected Kurtz, p. 41)

In 1952, the clinicians began to incorporate the use of LSD in their treatment. The “initial intention was to induce a psychic experience similar to delirium tremens, or DT’s, in the hope that it might serve to ‘shock’ alcoholics out of their dependence on alcohol… LSD was considered as a last resort, to be tried with otherwise unreachable alcoholics… In the aftermath of the DT’s, some alcoholics with whom all intervention efforts had failed were capable of understanding the desperation of their condition and responding to treatment”. (Hartigan, pp. 177-178)

Bill Wilson was “extremely unthrilled” when he first learned of the Canadians’ research through his friend, Gerald Heard. He opposed giving drugs to alcoholics.

The psychiatrists discovered that the main effect of the drug was to bring on an experience of illumination… (which) seemed to allow some of their patients who had previously resisted ‘the spiritual’ to accept it and thus to ‘get’ the AA program.

The results reported by Hoffer and Osmond fascinated Wilson. When LSD was given to alcoholics in mental hospitals, ‘of whom AA could touch and help only about five percent, they had about 15 percent recoveries.’ One of the Canadian studies reported a recovery rate of 70 percent. (Collected Kurtz, p. 42)


Bill Wilson had replaced his thirst for alcohol with a passionate thirst for helping alcoholics. He “had learned, in those first twenty years, that the main obstacle to drunks ‘getting’ AA was ‘the spiritual’”. (Collected Kurtz, p. 42) Here also was an increased hope for helping those previously considered somewhat outside of the prime target market.

Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. (AA Big Book, p. 58)

The Common Sense of Drinking has been acknowledged as having been a powerful influence on Bill Wilson’s understanding of alcoholism. The author of the 1931 publication, lay therapist Richard Peabody, had strongly advised against working with “psychotics.” Wilson had some experiences which confirmed Peabody’s concerns. Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers relates the tale of Eddie R., the very first Akron “prospect”. Eddie was “a borderline mental case” according to Smitty, Dr. Bob’s son.

After a variety of misadventures including wife-beating, escapes and chases, a threatened suicide, and a knife being brandished at Anne Smith, they gave up on Eddie. The LSD trials were achieving decent success rates with this most unpromising demographic.

“Bill became enthusiastic about the potential, saying ‘Anything that helps alcoholics is good and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.’ That was typical of his openness to new ideas and therapy.” (Grateful to Have Been There, Nell Wing, p. 81)

Bill Wilson

On August 29, 1956, Bill Wilson took LSD in a laboratory setting. “When Bill took LSD, use of the drug was legal. He first took it as a participant in a medically supervised experiment with Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley in California.” (Hartigan, p. 178) To return to the point of the early paragraphs, this was a full ten years before Timothy Leary’s “turn on” revolution. There was no incense burning, no Jefferson Airplane on the stereo, and it is highly unlikely that Bill was wearing bell bottoms and a tie-dyed t-shirt.

In a very real sense, LSD wasn’t LSD yet.

Its use was limited to hospitals, clinics, labs and universities.

“Here, then, is one clear reason why Bill Wilson experimented with LSD: he was seeking still further ways of helping alcoholics, specifically those alcoholics who could not seem to attain sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous because, apparently, they could not ‘get the spiritual’.” (Collected Kurtz, p. 42) Support for this research came from a surprising source. When one of his parishioners expressed concern to Sam Shoemaker, the reverend consulted his superior, Bishop Pardue who “declared himself ‘in utmost sympathy with what (Bill) is doing.’ The bishop, Shoemaker reported to Wilson, ‘is convinced that the biochemical factor is of the greatest importance…half our problems are bio-chemical and do not go back to sin and cannot be wholly governed by prayer’.” (Collected Kurtz, p. 43)

Wilson was insightful in noting, “the probability that prayer, fasting, meditation, despair and other conditions that predispose one to classical mystical experiences do have their chemical components”. (Wilson letter to Shoemaker, 1958) “Bill W. was himself drawn to seek ways of making more available the ‘sudden and spectacular upheavals’ that although not necessary seemed very, very useful.” (Collected Kurtz, p. 45)

“Wilson faced the classic problem of religious mystics: how to speak of that which cannot be captured by words? AA spirituality is founded in an experience of release, a free-ing – the sense that one has been saved… The co-founder felt a responsibility to make that deeper less glib experience available to a wider population of alcoholics… Bill realized… his own background in matters of ‘the spiritual’ was hardly typical.” (Collected Kurtz, p. 46)

There was an additional benefit ensuing from the LSD trials. “I am certain that the LSD experiment has helped me very much… I find myself with a heightened color perception and an appreciation of beauty almost destroyed by my years of depression.” (Letter to Gerald Heard, 1957)


Once more, we return to our attempt to capture the perspective of the time. “The 1950s were not the 1990s… Far from keeping secret his experience with LSD, AA’s co-founder judiciously but eagerly spread the word, inviting not only his wife and his secretary but also trusted friends to join his experiments… Clearly, Bill experienced no sense of shame or guilt over his activities… Bill was still seeking a cure for alcoholism… a way of helping more alcoholics get sober in Alcoholics Anonymous… one more facet in his persistent pursuit of ‘the spiritual.’” (Collected Kurtz, pp. 40-41)

Bill had “a major enthusiasm for LSD, and, later, for niacin, a B-complex vitamin”. (Hartigan, P. 9) There were of course, objections from a variety of sources and pressure to “cease and desist”, which ultimately, but grudgingly, he did. A clear consensus of when the experimentation was halted is not available. Matthew Raphael and Nell Wing have the end in late 1959, Kurtz the early 1960s, and Francis Hartigan has the activity continuing well into the 1960s.

Cool Wind A’blowin

“Perhaps the best understanding of addiction presents it as an attempt to fill a spiritual void with a material reality.” (Collected Kurtz, p. 48) Twenty years of working with alcoholics had convinced Bill Wilson that his Towns Hospital “hot flash,” whatever the exact cause, had given him an advantage over those not sharing such experiences themselves. If LSD could produce some sort of transformative event, then the AA founder was interested in looking into it. Hoffer and Osmond’s early results were encouraging.

A friend of mine, saved from alcoholism, during the last fatal phases of the disease, by a spontaneous theophany which changed his life as completely as St. Paul’s was changed on the road to Damascus, has taken lysergic acid two or three times and affirms that his experience under the drug is identical with the spontaneous experience which changed his life – the only difference being that the spontaneous experience did not last as long as the chemically induced one. There is, obviously, a field here for serious and reverent experimentation.(Aldous Huxley to Father Thomas Merton, 10 January 1959)


Although pure of motive, the LSD experimentation may indicate a lack of good judgment, or the alcoholic’s common propensity for flying headlong into projects with an enthusiastic intensity, perhaps indicative of the “malady”.

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!!

“The ‘lesson’ of Bill Wilson’s experimentation with LSD? If perfection is your goal, don’t go looking for models among the members – or even the founders – of Alcoholics Anonymous.” (Collected Kurtz, p. 49)

Ours is truly, a spirituality of imperfection.

Key-Players-Front-Cover1-e1422583040318About the Author, Bob K

Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 24 years, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AAAgnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published “Key Players in AA History” In 2013, he cofounded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Manoel Henriques Calos da Silva Neto

    I believe the main point here is related basically to the pragmatic way of viewing matters. Anyone who´s been close to the horrors produced by alcohol abuse will I believe, agree that any coordinated – meaning here dully supervised- experiments that might be of help in controlling somehow the abusive ingestion of alcohol (or any other drug for that matter) is more than welcome. Science should be on our side; open mindedness for these channels are a MUST. It is not very complicated if you are truly open minded.

  2. Bill Spivey

    < p align="justify">Thanks for the historical info about Bill Wilson’s use of LSD, and particularly for what I thought was a “neither endorse nor oppose” conclusion.<\p>

  3. Oren

    I’ve read another account somewhere that covered much the same information–but without the somewhat snarky attitude I see here. <\p>
    < p align="justify">“Grand Poobah”? <\p>
    < p align-"justify">If perfection is your goal, don’t go looking for models among the members – or even the founders – of Alcoholics Anonymous.”?<\p>
    < p align="justify">Come on, brothers and sisters, can’t we develop a secular version of our beloved program without the sarcasm?
    Seems to me that Bill’s womanizing–covered in a piece on AA Agnostica–casts far more doubt on his saintliness than his willingness to participate in a medically-supervised LSD trial. <\p>
    < p align="justify"> But even then, who cares if he was not a saint? What matters to me is that he was an alkie who found a way to stay sober–and his way, with modifications by me, saved my life.<\p>

    1. bob k

      First of all, “Grand Poobah” is quoted from biographer Mathhew Raphael. Any sarcasm was his. The second quotation with which you take issue is from the esteemed late historian, Ernest Kurtz, author of, among other fine works, “The Spirituality of Imperfection.” Kurtz makes the point that, in AA, our imperfection becomes an asset. I agree.
      You refer to a piece on Bill’s womanizing that was published on – also authored by me. That one, unsurprisingly, drew me some heat, but I confess to being taken aback at the LSD piece being viewed other than what was intended, a defense of this experimentation. The motives were noble. I hear far worse in the rooms, as many see Bill as “partying on LSD.” The core point of my essay, if you bothered to read it, was that LSD was NOT a street drug at the time. It was a lab experiment.
      If the article came across as an attack on Bill, I may have grounds for filing suit against the English Department of the University of Toronto.
      On the whole, I’m a big fan of Bill Wilson, but I think it’s best that we can look at him, warts and all. Many groups sanctify their deceased founders and leaders. We’re better not doing that.
      bob k

      1. Oren

        My apologies, Bob. I acknowledge that the words to which I reacted were quotes from other sources. I confess that I intensely dislike sarcasm, and I probably have started seeing it in places in which it is not intended. I had found your article about Bill’s woman problems enlightening. Now that I understand that you authored both pieces, I can see how, once again, karma is giving me a kick in the ass for my presumptions and inattentiveness. As long as we remember to do it with compassion and gratitude, I agree 100% with you: let’s look at the real history of our fellowship, warts and all.

        1. bob k

          That was both classy and impressive. I’m afraid that I am very capable of sarcasm. It can be mean-spirited, and it can be funny. My target is an infusion of humor, but we don’t always hit the mark.

  4. John S

    I remember reading about the LSD experiments, but I found this essay to be particularly useful to understanding Bill’s motives. He was frustrated that people weren’t getting the “spiritual” angle and that only 5% of the drunks 12 Stepped in mental hospitals were responsive to the AA message.

    He didn’t think about changing the message, but instead was looking for a better way for people to “get it”, but at least he wasn’t blaming the newcomer and was instead looking for a way to better reach them. Too often today in AA, I see the newcomer held responsible for “not getting it” and nobody ever stops to think that maybe we are doing something wrong, that maybe we need to change our approach.

    While LSD isn’t the answer, maybe there are things we can do differently or better when the newcomer arrives at our door asking for help.

    1. Karl S

      I saw some pretty clear bias in this essay. 1) LSD is inherently bad and all the “hippies” and “counterculture” is bad. Bob K apparently feels the need to distance Bill W from the bad hippies. OK, fine. We know he wasn’t a hippie. 2) There is no openness to the possibility of LSD actually being therapeutic. It seems Bill W was responding openly to the terribly low success rates of AA. Rates, by the way, which have not improved to this day. Since 1970, psychedelics have been designated schedule 1, it is not surprising that Bill’s LSD experiences were hidden by AA. But perhaps instead of burying the history of Bill’s LSD use, AA should have embraced it and addressed the spiritual question head on. Lack of spiritual insight and connection is not a problem exclusive to addicts. Psychedelic research is picking up again despite its continued legal prohibition. I am excited to see where the research goes.

  5. Fred S

    Thank you, bob k, for your time and effort writing this article, an enjoyable read.
    I have fairly extensive experience with LSD, having taken it probably 100 times during my teens/20’s, and it certainly has been undeservedly demonized by the media and powers that be. That said, however, it is nothing like taking a drink or a toke, and newbies are well advised to have an experienced user (with a good heart) tripping with them as a helper and guide the first few times. I was mildly surprised at your repeated emphasis on “before LSD was LSD”, which actually means before its image had been tarnished by foolish misuse and the paranoic ravings of uninformed fearmongers. But perhaps your target audience is those whose perception of LSD was formed by, and remains influenced by, those sources of misinformation; I just take that stuff for granted and feel that no apologist stance is necessary.
    As one who was there, however, I do feel moved to point out one thing. You don’t “tune in” until you “turn on”, so the correct chronological order for Leary’s quote is “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. That quote, too, has been demonized in popular culture. Quoting from Leary’s autobiography (which I have not read; I got this on Wikipedia):
    “Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers that engage them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. “Tune in” meant interact harmoniously with the world around you – externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change. Unhappily my explanations of this sequence of personal development were often misinterpreted to mean “Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity”.

    1. Bob K.

      Some very informed comments here from Fred. Fifty years ago, the nature of how LSD is perceived changed dramatically. Few on the planet have much awareness of what LSD was in 1961, or 1951. People my age remember OJ the Buffalo Bill, and earlier, Heisman Trophy winner. Younger folks remember him as a commentator, B-movie actor, or a cast member of “Roots.” To people younger still, he may just be the ex-football guy who killed his wife, and got away with it.

      Prior to 1995, OJ wasn’t yet OJ the wife killer, and LSD wasn’t yet LSD the street drug, but it’s had that identity for so long, I think it’s hard to see it as something else. LSD IS LSD the street drug, in the PERCEPTION of the vast majority, who seem to  have some difficulty as viewing it as something outside of that perception.

  6. Sid

    Great article – thank you! I highly recommend a book about Bill, Gerald Heard & Aldous Huxley. It’s titled Distilled Spirits. Thanks again!

    1. Rick R.

      Thank you for your article, and for the comments.  You can get a little closer to the horse’s mouth on those LSD experiments at UCLA, should you be a serious researcher, by getting to know the work of Bill W’s research doctors who oversaw those experiments, Dr. Sidney Cohen and Dr. Keith Ditman — both of UCLA at that time.  Don’t know if either is still alive.  Then, if you are really serious, go to UCLA and find the tapes of those experiments and the after-the-fact interviews with those subjects.  I can’t tell you which department or special collections library archives to find them at UCLA but the tapes exist.  Finally, as a side note, the founder of Synanon (America’s first privately run, live-in, drug program), Chuck Dederich, was in the same clinical trials program, with the same doctors above, but Chuck took his LSD in August 1957, one year after Bill W. took his first dose.  I listened to a 1966 audio tape of Chuck being interviewed by Dr. Sidney Cohen, about 9 years after that 1957 experiment.  Dederich later had a second “dose” but said the second one did not do anything to or for him, so I assume it was a placebo the second time.  Dederich had cleaned up in AA in May 1956 and was an avid 12th Stepper with other alcoholics at the time of his 1957 clinical trial dose.  So, unlike Bill’s long term sobriety (21 years+ at the time of his first LSD dose), Dederich had only been sober a little over one year.  Each of their  life’s work (the good, bad and ugly) “is the lengthened shadow of one man,” to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Dederich always said how much he owed to AA for getting him clean.  He stayed clean and sober until 1978, when he began “controlled drinking” and his life went back to hell in a hand basket very quickly.  We need the cautionary tale stories as well as the role-model variety.

      1. Bob K.

        I do enough research to bring a 6-8 page essay. “Key Players in AA History” has 32 such essays, and brings the highlights of AA history to the reader seeking a simple path to greater knowledge of the subject matter. I read 40 books to write one. A broad spectrum is covered, but not in the detail that comes when a researcher focuses on a single subject.

        About 2 years back, I was in communication with such a scholar who has 400 pages on Hank Parkhurst some 15 years into the project, but has yet to publish. That’s not for me.

    2. Bob K.


      I have the Don Lattin book, and enjoyed it. It’s unfortunate that at the time this essay was penned and published, I had not yet read “Distilled Spirits.” Heard particularly was quite a fascinating character.

  7. Rick R.

    Just bought your book in Kindle format.  Love to have a look.  Good work.  I have never read anything of yours before today.  FYI, in the case of Chuck Dederich and his founding of Synanon, Dederich’s LSD “trip” in those clinical trials was THE impetus for breaking from AA orthodoxy.  He said he then “knew what my life’s purpose was and what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”  After his “trip,” Dederich started having AA-style meetings which included some rude-truth and irreverence in feedback with others who joined them in Santa Monica, California.  They then got their first facility for alcoholics and drug addicts (they preferred the irreverent, “dope fiend,” to describe themselves) in which to live and recover in August 1959, on the beach in Santa Monica.  I think the addition of those three things — dope fiends AND alcoholics, feedback (cross talk) as to each other and, living in a common recovery facility — were three important new factors which distinguished the AA “way” and the Synanon community rehab “way” from each other.  Synanon dropped “God” from its equation, as well as dropping the 12 Steps from its orthodoxy, and created its own “way”  — three pluses and two minuses, in other words, is my take on the short version of the two great recovery threads in the U.S.  Dederich always credited AA with cleaning him up and saving his life, notwithstanding his fall from grace in 1978 when he picked up the bottle again.  Looking forward to reading your work.

  8. Sid

    Since Heard didn’t have any heirs, he deeded his Trabuco College to the So. Cal. Vedanta Society. It is now called The Ramakrishna Monastery & we have a meeting in their library twice a month.

  9. Pat OBP

    Great article. I appreciated what Bill was trying to do: find another way to help suffering alcoholics smash their egos.

    These days, there is extensive therapy with Ayahuasca, a South American psychodelic. I’ve met people who have participated in the ceremony, and researched the Canadian doctor, who has had great success with cleaning up street junkies.



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