Harvard, LSD, and the 1960s
by James K. Mcauley
January 05, 2010
According to Don Lattin's The Harvard Psychedelic Club
(HarperCollins, $24.99), which goes on sale today, there was
apparently a time at Harvard when it was perfectly hunky-dory for
professors to give LSD to their studentsfor purely scientific
purposes, of course.
Needless to say, Harvard is a much different place these days, when
the only things our professors give us are lower participation grades
and holier-than-thou frowns when our cell phones go off in class. Sigh.
But back in the 1960swhen guys seemed averse to razors and grooming,
girls were banished to Radcliffe Yard, and students of both genders
stormed into University Hall to protest whatever they felt like
protestingthe Harvard Psilocybin Project was in full swing [see
correction below]. The project, which involved administering
psilocybin (a consciousness-expanding drug) to research subjects,
brought together Timothy Leary, Huston Smith, Richard Alpert (aka Ram
Dass), and former Crimson editor Andrew T. Weil '63, four men who
became major players in the counterculture movement and, as Lattin
claims, "killed the fifities and ushered in a new age for America."
But the often forgotten presence of Harvard in this wild and crazy
chapter of American history is really something. According to a
review in the San Francisco Chronicle, [see below] Lattin's book
indicates that then-University President Nathan M. Pusey's '28
decision to fire Alpert and Leary essentially mandated that San
Francisco (where the pair headed after leaving dainty old Cambridge)
would be the holy seat of counterculture.
The review also speculates that it was Weil's reporting that first
brought Pusey's attention to the Harvard Psilocybin Project. If
that's true, then it looks like it was the work of a Crimson reporter
(who oddly embraced drugs and, as we mentioned, later joined the
ranks of the counterculture) was the reason all that epic, tie-dyed
craziness of the 1960s didn't take place right here in Harvard Yard.
'The Harvard Psychedelic Club,' by Don Lattin
Ari L. Goldman, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, January 3, 2010
The Harvard Psychedelic Club
How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the
Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America
By Don Lattin
(HarperOne; 256 pages; $24.99)
Few names conjure the chaos and madness of the 1960s like that of Dr.
Timothy Leary. It was Leary, after all, who told America's young:
"The only way out is in. Turn on, tune in and drop out. Out of high
school, junior executive, senior executive. And follow me!"
It was enough to lead Richard Nixon to label Leary "the most
dangerous man in America."
But, as Don Lattin reminds us in this informative and highly
entertaining book, Leary was once considered a rising star in
mainstream psychology and worked with the imprimatur of no place
other than Harvard University. It was at Harvard where Leary met
another researcher named Richard Alpert, who was later to become a
guru named Ram Dass.
Leary and Alpert were convinced that psychedelic drugs were going to
change - in their words "revolutionize" - both psychology and
religion. They set about to prove their ideas by liberally dispensing
LSD and other hallucinogens to everyone from Harvard students to
inmates at the local Massachusetts prisons. It was all done, they
insisted, in the name of science.
Leary and Alpert and their fellow researchers wouldn't let their
subjects take the drugs alone, but tripped with them. And, like the
good researchers they were, they took voluminous notes. "Objects
appeared distorted like images in a curved mirror," one researcher
wrote about tripping while riding a bicycle. "I had the impression of
being unable to move from the spot, although my assistant told me
afterward that we had cycled at a good pace."
"I was overcome with the fear that I was going crazy," he continued.
"I thought I had died."
Lattin, a former longtime religion writer for The Chronicle, makes
good use of these notes and other contemporary sources. And he brings
them up to date by conducting interviews with as many of the
principals as he can find. He speaks to nearly all the people in the
book's cumbersome subtitle: Ram Dass in Hawaii, Andrew Weil in
Arizona and Huston Smith in California. Leary died in 1996, but
Lattin is on his trail as well. Early in the book he tells of a visit
to the house where Leary once lived in Newton, Mass.
The subtitle is just the beginning of the name-dropping that goes on
in this book. Many 1960s icons have cameos, including John F. Kennedy
(who may or may not have had some LSD delivered to the White House)
and John Lennon (who wrote "Come Together" for Leary), and others
like Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Maynard
Ferguson, Ken Kesey, Grace Slick and Jerry Garcia.
I found the name-dropping a bit tedious at first, but then realized
that Lattin was building an airtight case for his ambitious subtitle.
By the end of the book, you realize that these four Harvard men did,
in fact, "kill the Fifties and usher in a new age for America."
Many of the stories in this book have been told elsewhere, but Lattin
tells them with new energy and weaves them together to create a
satisfying narrative that re-creates and explains the era. He tells
how Weil, then a young reporter for the Harvard Crimson, gets Leary
and Alpert fired; how the center of the drug culture then shifts to
San Francisco; how Leary gets arrested and tossed into jail and how
the Weather Underground helps him escape.
In the end, Lattin notes, the god of drugs failed not only the four
gurus of the age but also an entire generation. Hallucinogens did not
revolutionize either psychology or religion. They led many astray and
ruined many lives. (One of the haunting images from this book is of a
mother who confronts a love-beaded Leary and screams at him: "You
killed my son!") But Lattin sees much good in the legacy that these
four men left.
"They changed the way we see the very nature of reality," Lattin
writes. "We see the best of them in the best of ourselves. In the
end, it is not about the drugs. It's about remembering the
life-affirming moments along the way - those glimpses of wonder and
awe, empathy and interconnectedness - and finding a place for all of
that in the rest of our lives."
Ari L. Goldman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is
the author of "The Search for God at Harvard." E-mail him at
'The Harvard Psychedelic Club'
By DON LATTIN
Published: January 7, 2010
Andy Weil and Ronnie Winston were friends and dorm mates in Claverly
Hall. They were both incoming Harvard freshmen when they walked into
Leary's office on Divinity Lane and volunteered to be research
subjects in his psychedelic research project. Weil had grown up in a
middle-class family. Winston was the son of Harry Winston, the
wealthy diamond and jewelry manufacturer whose creations hung around
the necks of trophy wives and Hollywood starlets from coast to coast.
Neither of them would officially take part in the project, but they
would both play an important, little-known role in the rise and fall
of Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary.
Winston would eventually be brought into the psychedelic family. Weil
would not, and the implications of that unequal treatment would
forever alter the careers and life paths of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert.
Weil and Winston had both read The Doors of Perception, Huxley's book
about the insights the British writer gleaned from his 1953 mescaline
trip. They walked into Leary's little office on Divinity Avenue eager
to fly off on their own mystical journey. They were a bit nervous
when they sat down, but Leary soon put them at ease with his
"Yes," Leary said, "Huxley was the trailblazer. You know, I didn't
have a clue as to the potential of this research until I had my own
experience with psilocybin mushrooms over the summer. At its core,
you have to understand that this is not an intellectual exercise. It
is experiential. It is, and I'm almost embarrassed to say it,
religious. But it is more than religious. It is exhilarating. It
shows us that the human brain possesses infinite potentialities. It
can operate in space-time dimensions that we never dreamed even
existed. I feel like I've awakened from a long ontological sleep."
Weil and Winston were on the edge of their seats.
"Anyway," Leary continued, "the research is pretty straightforward.
Our subjects take a controlled dose of synthesized psilocybin. We
make sure they are in a safe and comfortable setting. We're trying to
get people from all walks of life, not just graduate students. We're
giving this stuff to priests and prisoners and everyone in between.
They do a session about once a month and are expected to write up a
two- to three-page report describing the experience. Between
sessions, we get together and discuss whatever insights we've gleaned
from all this. Now, I assume neither of you have had any experience
with these substances."
"No, sir, we have not," Weil replied. "But we are ready, willing, and able."
"I can see that," Leary said. "But I think we may have a little
problem. How old are you boys?"
"That's what I was afraid of. You see, our agreement with the
university does not allow us to use undergraduates in this research."
"That's what we were afraid of," Weil said. "To tell you the truth,
some of us over at Claverly were thinking of running our own series
of tests, and we were wondering if you could clue us in on how we
might obtain some of these pills."
"Well, I could, but I'd better not do that, boys," Leary replied.
"But if you're persistent, I'm sure you can find your own source."
Weil met separately with Professor Alpert. The answer was still the
same. No, he could not participate in the experiments at the Center
for Personality Research. They had made an agreement with the
university not to use undergraduate subjects in their research. To
Weil, the meeting with Alpert had a very different feel than the
get-together with Leary. Weil found Alpert uncomfortable to be
around. Leary was a charmer. He was easygoing. Alpert was intense. He
seemed too wrapped up in the role of the Harvard professor.
Weil and Winston were persistent. They weren't able to obtain their
own psilocybin pills, but they did manage to get a supply of
mescaline, a psychedelic drug synthesized from the peyote cactus.
Weil wrote to Huxley, who suggested they try a company called Delta
Chemical. Weil obtained some Harvard stationery and got to work. He
couldn't fool the folks at Delta, who required too much official
paperwork, but Weil found another company with looser
Once they got the drugs, Weil, Winston, and some other undergraduates
started their own experiments in Claverly Hall. They were basically
doing the same thing Leary was doing over at the Center for
Personality Research. They'd take the drugs and write up reports
about their experiences. Then they'd sit around and discuss them.
Weil emerged as a leader of the little drug ring operating out of
Claverly Hall. He collected about thirty reports on undergraduate
mescaline trips. He didn't see the experiences as just an excuse to
get high. He wasn't rebelling against anything. He was just curious,
eager to understand what was going on inside his own brain.
Not much happened the first time he took mescaline. He was
apprehensive. He'd later see that he was unconsciously resisting the
drug. He didn't feel much of anything, and that disappointed him.
He'd wanted to experience all the visual images he'd read about in
those wild accounts of other mescaline eaters. That's what really
fascinated him, but he didn't get any of that. On his second trip, he
did have a more powerful emotional experience. Not hallucinations,
but a kind of spiritual transcendence. It was a kind of serene
feeling of connection with something higher. Everything just felt
right like he was seeing into the essence of things. But there was
also something frightening about the experience. Andy was reluctant
to just go with the flow. He didn't dare up the dose and go deeper.
He could see that having any more of these insights might convince
him that Harvard was a complete waste of time.
Weil was a calculating, ambitious young man. He had the next ten
years of his life all mapped out. He'd later see that he'd somehow
put the psychedelic experience in a box. He stopped experimenting
with drugs. If he hadn't, he might have dropped out of school. Who
knows what would have happened to him?
Meanwhile, Ronnie Winston had begun his own adventure with Richard
Alpert. They'd met at a party. Ronnie was there with a girl Alpert
knew, and the student and the professor started talking. Alpert
invited Ronnie out to lunch, then for a ride in his airplane. They
both came from wealthy East Coast families and had much in common.
Alpert became infatuated with the young student.
Ronnie was a brilliant, romantic-looking figure. He drove a Jaguar.
He was a liberal arts student but had this idea for a project over at
MIT involving solid rocket fuel. They didn't have sex, but they
developed a kind of intimate friendship. Alpert shared some of his
psilocybin with Winston. In Alpert's mind, Ronnie was a social friend
not a research subject so he wasn't violating his agreement to
keep undergraduates out of the psilocybin project.
Ronnie had made it into the inner circle around Leary and Alpert.
Andy had not. At one point, Leary and Alpert had a conversation about
Andy Weil. They didn't trust him. Alpert didn't like him. He was up
to something. He had another agenda. They noticed that Weil had
started covering the arts for the Harvard Crimson, the school
newspaper. Maybe that was it. Maybe Weil was trying to infiltrate the
project and write an exposé.
Weil saw a double standard in Alpert's embrace of Ronnie Winston. It
was obvious that some undergraduates and not just Ronnie were
being brought into the fold. Why not Andy? What was wrong with him?
Ronnie had been a good friend. He'd even been Weil's guide during
their mescaline sessions in Claverly Hall. But that friendship ended
when Winston started hanging out with Alpert.
Weil would find a way to get back at Richard Alpert and, in the
process, put an end to his relationship with Ronnie Winston. Weil was
determined to bring down the Harvard Psilocybin Project, and he would
take on the assignment with the zeal of a jilted lover.
The Harvard Psychedelic Club
By M.J. Stephey
Jan. 11, 2010
An Ivy League campus seems an unlikely place for the word psychedelic
and all that it implies to take root, but as journalist Don Lattin
writes in his new book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club, the hallowed
quads of Cambridge, Mass., are where the New Age movement began. In
1960, six years before he famously advised teens to "turn on, tune
in, drop out," acid guru Timothy Leary met fellow Harvard professors
Ram Dass and Huston Smith and an ambitious freshman named Andrew Weil
(now an internationally recognized physician and health guru). Their
collaborations and conflicts would forever alter Americans' views on
religion, reality and drugs. TIME spoke with Lattin about Leary's
contradictory legacy, the future of hallucinogens and what he learned
from his own bad trip.
I had wondered how you first became interested in this topic, and
then I got to the last chapter.
I lay all my cards on the table at the end there about my past
struggles with drugs and alcohol. Like many people in my generation,
I grew up hearing and reading about Timothy Leary, and I was
fascinated. Later on, as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco, I did
stories on Leary and Ram Dass and Huston Smith. I covered religion
for the Chronicle and the Examiner, but a lot of the time I would be
writing about the so-called New Age movement and the Human Potential
movement and Eastern mysticism and all that stuff. So I thought I'd
do this story about Leary and Dass and what happened at Harvard. When
I started doing my early research and reporting, I realized that not
only did I not know the story, but the story had never really been
told, especially about what happened with Andrew Weil. Nobody had
ever really heard about his role in the whole thing. Plus, I wanted
to reassess the impact that the psychedelic '60s has had on the
culture, because there was such a backlash against all that in the
'80s and '90s. Then of course, there's the personal story, which I
tell at the end. I struggled about whether or not to put that in the book.
Why did you end up including it?
It explains why I was so fascinated with their story and the
questioning of what is the long-term impact of these drugs. I had
some of the most powerfully profound, amazing experiences of my life
on LSD, and I also had a bad trip. I basically had a psychotic break
I was a freshman in college at the time and I was worried that I
had subjected myself to permanent brain damage. It was the most
terrifying thing of my life. Aldous Huxley writes that these are
"heaven-and-hell drugs." You can go both places with them. I've often
thought about what long-term effect that did have on my life. In the
end, I think it was a positive experience for me. I mean, I did get
to the other side, right? I came back able to talk about it.
How do you think Leary will be viewed in 50 years?
I'm not sure. When you really study the life of Leary, you see both
sides of him. He was this very complicated character. One of the
ironies of this story is that the excesses of Leary and Dass in the
whole LSD crusade prompted this backlash, not just against drugs as
recreation, but a backlash against serious scientific research into
what beneficial uses they have. And not just LSD. There are dozens of
designer psychedelics that have been developed: ecstasy, MDMA, stuff
most people had never heard of. Only now, 50 years later, is there
research on their use for the treatment of depression, posttraumatic
syndrome, alcoholism, end-of-life use for people who are facing their
own mortality. Even Harvard is studying LSD again, with government
money. There's been a whole renaissance of serious, reputable,
legitimate research into psychedelic drugs; it's taken that long to
get over Leary.
I love the line that you quoted from Leary when he was asked who he
is: "You get the Timothy Leary you deserve."
That's a typical Leary line because you're never sure if he's serious
or pulling your leg. I was talking with Ralph Metzner, who worked
with Leary and Dass at Harvard in the early '60s, and he said, "You
know he wasn't really against everything; he was really more like a
trickster from American-Indian lore. He's not some compassionate,
all-loving guru. He really tricks you into waking up; he fools you."
Leary was like that.
What do you see as the future use of psychedelics?
It has ebbed and flowed. A lot of people are still taking LSD. Some
of my friends' kids are saying, "Oooh, wow, Don's writing a book on
LSD, how cool." People have never really stopped exploring this
stuff. In one of the first books that Weil ever wrote, The Natural
Mind, his premise is that we have an innate need to alter our
consciousness, almost like our need for food or sex. We're hardwired
to want to do this, and I think there's some truth to that. He says,
Look at kids who spin around to get dizzy. People have been using
drugs since time immemorial. The only thing that seems to change is
which drugs are legal and which are illegal, or which drugs are in
and which are out.
Four come together for a memorable head trip in 'The Harvard Psychedelic Club'
The inside story of how visionaries tried to initiate a freethinking
way of life in the '60s.
BY CHRISTINE THOMAS
The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston
Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age
for America. Don Lattin. Harper One. 237 pages $24.99.
Almost 50 years ago, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who took the
name Ram Dass and was once described as ``a consciousness-raising
Oprah,'' launched the ambitious -- and in retrospect, unbelievable --
Harvard Psilocybin Project.
Most know what resulted from their groundbreaking psychedelic
experiments with MIT and Harvard graduate students, but the inside
story has remained mysterious. Now a remarkably engrossing biography
by veteran religion journalist and author Don Lattin reveals how
Leary and Alpert linked up with world religion expert Huston Smith
and later clashed with Andrew Weil, today's bearded ``CEO of
alternative medicine in America,'' their lives from then on forever entwined.
Lattin's narrative is engaged but journalistically neutral, and
though he categorizes Leary as ``the trickster prophet,'' Smith as
``the teacher,'' Alpert as ``the seeker'' and Weil as ``the healer,''
the individuals resist his dispassionate labels. The book offers an
oppor tunity to be a fly on the wall, witnessing the unfolding of the
decisions, yearnings and -- yes -- drug trips this infamous group
experienced centered on seeking a more conscious and freethinking way of life.
To unpack these interwoven, perhaps karmic, relationships, Lattin's
narrative hops around, swooping through one man's life then alighting
on the next. Time becomes somewhat unhinged, much like Leary and
friends describe the LSD experience, and, unfortunately, Lattin
continually repeats facts and context, from explaining Weil's future
career to the reason the Beatles' wrote Come Together. Yet the
story's inherently captivating elements allow these redundancies to
be overlooked. Lattin is unexpectedly adept at plaiting together
separate but contemporary threads of history and purposefully
employing '60s parlance, allusions and celebrity cameos (Ken Kesey,
Lattin's prose is also atmospheric, holding its own against this
powerhouse backdrop while resting confidently on a narrative
nonfiction foundation of sanctioned re-created dialogue, outside
source material and recent interviews with Dass, Smith and Weil. When
he describes Leary's first ``mushroom ride'' in Mexico or Smith's
terrifying yet awe-inspiring LSD trip, his evocative description
highlights drama and siphons readers into the moment to experience it, too.
But arguably the most interesting aspects surround the early times.
The book begins when Leary and Alpert were driven clinical
psychologists. Leary, who attended West Point, was also ``once
considered a rising star in mainstream psychology,'' and Alpert
struggled with his sexual and spiritual identity long before a visit
to India transformed him into America's guru. They joined forces with
Smith, an open-minded scholar and author of the foundational book The
World's Religions, steeped in faith since his missionary childhood in
China. Only the ambitious undergraduate Weil was perpetually excluded
from the clique, his scheming keeping him tenuously connected (one of
the story's most shocking and captivating facets).
The Harvard Psychedelic Project's intimate, revealing vista makes the
book soar, and, as Lattin hopes, just might inspire today's idealists
to carve a new path and profoundly change the world as these four
dynamic visionaries once did.
Christine Thomas is a writer in Hawaii.