3 Trippy Ideas from a Radical Pioneer of Psychedelic Psychiatry


In 1964, British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond sat down with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in Princeton, New Jersey for a sweeping, six-hour interview.

Osmond, the creator of the word “psychedelic,” a ground-breaker in LSD research, and a physician who had often positioned himself on the edge of mainstream psychiatry, discussed d-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), alcoholism, time and space, as well as the problems with psychiatry and the nature of schizophrenia.

It was a radical time in the history of psychiatry. Psychiatrists were discussing the “community” as well as broader questions of modernization, scientific legitimacy, and human rights.

According to sociologist Nick Crossley, psychiatry “found itself on the agenda of the contentious politics of the 1960s” and the earliest radical critiques of the discipline emerged out of the United Kingdom’s Institute of Phenomenological Studies, comprised of R.D. Laing, David Cooper, Joseph Berke and Leon Redler. Eventually, this led to the growth of anti-psychiatry.

Criticisms of psychiatry also resonated at the popular level, as evidenced by the success of novels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, published in 1962.

New drugs (lithium in 1949, chlorpromazin in 1952, imipramin in 1957, haloperidol in 1958, and diazepam in 1963) for various mental disorders quickly became major pillars of psychiatric treatment and changed the face of psychiatry. Historian Edward Shorter has characterized the period as the beginning of “the second biological psychiatry,” whereas psychopharmacologist David Healy pronounced that a “therapeutic revolution” was the immediate outcome of the 1950s-1960s.

Osmond’s Ideas

Osmond, a path-breaking psychiatrist in Saskatchewan, Canada in the 1950s and 1960s, was an active participant in this evolving mental health environment and quite simply full of ideas.

In October 1951, Osmond uprooted from his native England and emigrated to Weyburn, Saskatchewan where his theories could be nurtured. He gave mescaline and LSD to schizophrenics and individuals suffering from alcohol addiction.

As Erika Dyck has written, it was not all smooth sailing for Osmond during his time in Canada. He faced substantial criticism from academics based at the Addictions Research Foundation (ARF) in Toronto who tried to undermine his work on LSD.

Increasingly negative public, scientific, and political perceptions of LSD—what some called an LSD panic—fueled legislative measures to criminalize the drug. The concern generated by the drug was disproportionate to its physical threat and efforts were taken to limit its availability. Those efforts would prevent Osmond’s imminent research on the link between schizophrenia and LSD. From Osmond’s perspective, the moral panic surrounding LSD, which included stigmatization and regulation, was a passion-fueled blunder that harmed impartial research.

But besides Osmond’s research on LSD, his links to Aldous Huxley, coining of the term “psychedelic,” he was a big thinker in other ways. Here is a short list of some of his “radical” ideas.

1. Architecture matters.

Hospitals should be clean. That was a given for Osmond. However, during his interview with the CBC, he went further. Conditions within the hospital should be “light, airy and comfortable” and the staff ought to be “friendly, kind, and understanding.” Patients should have rooms of their own, “the food should be good” and there should be “many pleasing and pleasant diversions.”

In other words, Osmond was a proponent of architecture contributing to successful therapy and he discussed how the design of hospitals contributed to stagnancy. The drugs were important, whether it was LSD or Thorazine. But the design of the building was crucial, too.

According to Osmond, large hospitals were “machines for the destruction of patients.” No doubt he was drawing from Erving Goffman, who wrote about Asylums and he made a special point of noting his own achievements at the Weyburn Hospital in Saskatchewan, which he argued was one of the few hospitals in North America that aligned with his vision of an ideal treatment center.

This wasn’t simply hot air. The American Psychiatric Association had awarded his hospital an Award of Merit in 1957.

2. Carl Jung and political profiling were cool.

A discussion of Carl Jung (and his theories) formed a significant part of the interview.

Osmond was smitten with Jung’s study of personality types and thought they could be applied to political leaders in the 1960s and even in an historical way. Anyone who has taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test for a job placement or counseling will understand this.

Osmond used it to dissect the seminal figures of the 1960s and the Cold War, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as Winston Churchill, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin. He also assessed Hitler.

President John Kennedy was a “thinking-intuitive type,” whereas his successor, Lyndon Johnson, was a “sensation-feeling type.” Kennedy, on the one hand, was “clear cut,” “interesting,” and “able to be alone.” He “felt you had to study the past” and was “always groping for a set of political principles.” President Johnson, by contrast, “was a magnificent example of a sensation-feeling type, with all their great abilities and their great shortcomings.”   

Hitler was a “psychotic intuitive.”

3. Schizophrenia and orthomolecular psychiatry.

Finally, Osmond, along with his research partner Abram Hoffer, proposed novel ideas about schizophrenia and its treatment.

On the one hand, Osmond encouraged his staff to take LSD so they could better understand what it was like to suffer from schizophrenia. In his view, no one – neither a nurse, nor orderly – who had not personally experienced schizophrenics ought to be in a position to look after them. Osmond and his staff thus took LSD and chronicled the journey.

On the other hand, as early as 1952, one of the ways that Osmond and Hoffer sought to treat schizophrenia was with Vitamin B3 (niacin). They felt that they had to address the mental and biochemical basis of the disorder and niacin was a proper adjunctive therapy. Ultimately, the results of double-blind studies were inconsistent. This type of treatment would later be called orthomolecular psychiatry by Linus Pauling.

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