The Incredible Story of Albert Hofmann and the Birth of LSD

See how the Swiss scientist synthesized the drug that took the world on a trip and fueled a cultural revolution.

Albert Hofmann LSD

“I did not choose LSD; LSD found and called me,” Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann once told friends when reflecting on his inexplicable attraction to LSD, a psychedelic drug he invented in Switzerland in the 1930s.

While working for Swiss pharmaceutical-chemical company Sandoz, 32-year-old Hofmann combined various organic molecules with lysergic acid, hoping to come up with a compound that would stimulate the circulatory and respiratory systems. In 1938, on the 25th attempt, he discovered lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. He had synthesized the drug from ergotamine, a chemical created from the ergot fungi, a mushroom long used as a folk medicine.

When Hofmann tested the new substance on lab animals, they became strangely excited. Sadly, the physicians and pharmacologists Hofmann was working for didn’t echo the sentiment of the exacerbated rats. Unamused with the discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide, his corporate overlords put an end to LSD’s further development.

hofmann-molecule.jpg
Albert Hofmann in the lab. Image via Novartis

As years passed, Hofmann had “a peculiar presentiment,” a feeling that lysergic acid diethylamide might possess a depth of qualities not previously established in his prior experiments. Perhaps it was divine intuition. Or, maybe it was those dosed animals, animated in their cages, that left an impression he couldn’t seem to shake. Hofmann was a curious fellow, after all. His speech from the 1996 Worlds of Consciousness Conference in Heidelberg, Germany, points to this. “Mystical experiences in childhood, in which nature was altered in magical ways, had provoked questions concerning the essence of the external, material world, and chemistry was the scientific field which might afford insights into this,” said Hofmann.

LSD-2D-skeletal-formula-and-3D-models.png
LSD on a molecular level in 2D and 3D models. Image via Wikimedia Commons

On Friday, April 19, 1943, five years after shelving his early experiments with LSD, Hofmann created it again. This time, however, Hofmann accidentally became all too familiar with LSD’s  “trippy” psychedelic properties. After a miniscule amount seeped through the skin of his fingertips, he began to feel uneasy. So, Hofmann headed home. The following Monday, he returned to the lab and wrote this note, explaining his absence to his boss:

“I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dream-like state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”


Three days later, at 4:20 p.m, Hofmann decided to intentionally ingest 250 micrograms of LSD, thinking it would do little to affect him. But, little did he know, 20 micrograms was the threshold dose. Forty minutes later, he was scribbling this in his journal:

“Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.”


Tripping once again, Hofmann had to leave the lab. His trusty assistant, the only person who knew of this self-experimentation, was kind enough to escort him home. Due to wartime restrictions, they were unable to travel by car and embarked on the journey by bicycle instead.

Through distorted vision and perceived paralysis, Hofmann peddled dizzily to his front door. Barely able to speak, powerful hallucinations took over. He began to notice what Hunter S. Thompson later deemed “the Fear.” Would it destroy the mind? Would it kill? What’s next? Regret and anxiety flooded over Hofmann, shaping his extrasensory experience.

“The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa. … Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner relentlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk—in the course of the evening I drank more than two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R, but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask … Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be a wasted effort. A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. … I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange. Was I dying?”


A doctor was called to check on him, but only noted dilated pupils. His vitals tested normal. As the physician waited patiently by his side, Hofmann began to relax.

“The horror softened and gave way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude, the more normal perceptions and thoughts returned, and I became more confident that the danger of insanity was conclusively past. Now, little by little, I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me….”


By the time his wife arrived, the throws of psychedelica lost its grip. Hofmann came down. The next morning, he articulated his experience and impressions of this brave new world.

“Everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day.”


April 19 is now known as Bicycle Day, a celebration of all things Hofmann and LSD by psychonauts around the globe.

albert-hoffman-trippy.jpg

In a 1976 interview with High Times, Hofmann disclosed he tried LSD 10 to 15 times over the course of 27 years. It had been six years since his last dose. “I have taken no more LSD, because I believe that all an LSD experience can give me has already been given. Maybe later in my life I will have the need to take it once or several times more,” he said.

Used both spiritually and recreationally, LSD is characterized by its consciousness-expanding effects. Those who partake report a deeper understanding of different perspectives and an altered awareness of perceptions, feelings, and surroundings, as well as hallucinations lasting up to 12 hours.

Since Hofmann’s self-experimentation, LSD has been examined by European psychiatric professionals as a solution to understanding brain chemistry and mental illness. In 1947, Sandoz branded LSD “Delysid” and offered it as a pharmaceutical medication for treating assorted psychiatric issues. Once LSD made its way to the American psychiatric community in 1950, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tested the drug on students and servicemen as well as unsuspecting adults, hoping it would prove useful as an agent for chemical warfare and mind control. The mid 1950s proved to be an enlightening time in LSD research with studies being conducted on its ability to stimulate learning and spark creativity. In the ’60s, LSD spread like wildfire, taken recreationally among the counterculture generation and sparking a cultural revolution. Congress made LSD illegal in 1966.

Before Hofmann passed away in 2008, he told Rick Doblin, PhD and founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the most important area of psychedelic research will be microdosing, the technique of taking only small quantities of substances for therapeutic purposes. Hofmann came to this conclusion based on his many years of study, both on himself and animals. One peculiar experiment was conducted with a spider. Hofmann said, “[At low doses] the webs were even better proportioned and more exactly built than normally. However, with higher doses, the webs were badly and rudimentarily made.”

The future of microdosing LSD to enhance spiritual wellness, creativity, productivity, and to treat mental health issues deserves further research and less restriction. Using medical marijuana reform as a template, “psychedelic societies” across the nation, like the Oregon Psilocybin Society (OPS), are advocating to destigmatize and legalize psychedelics. OPS is working on the Oregon Psilocybin Initiative, which may find a place on the ballot in 2020, encouraging Hofmann’s legacy to live on.

Written on February 16, 2017 by

Zoe Wilder

Zoe Wilder is a writer based in Portland, Oregon, with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the College of William & Mary and a Master of Social Work from Fordham University.