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Mystic Chemist: The Life of Albert Hofmann and His Discovery of LSD
by Dieter Hagenbach and Lucius Werthm├╝ller
Publisher:
Synergetic Press 
Year:
2013 
ISBN:
978-0-907791-46-1 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jon Hanna, 6/13/2013

Over the past couple of years, I’ve read (or re-read) a number of books related to LSD. My interest in acid was rekindled while working with the Stolaroff Collection for Erowid, which provided numerous opportunities for me to think about psychedelics; not from a nuts-and-bolts perspective focused mainly on issues related to use, but rather from the perspective of history, which engages one in the life stories of noteworthy individuals, their ideas, their relationships, their actions, and how that past led to the present moment.

1943 wasn’t merely the psychoptic birth year of Albert Hofmann’s “problem child”. That same year in Basel, Switzerland, another child was born: Dieter Hagenbach. And so it came to pass that on April 16th, exactly 70 years after Albert Hofmann was accidentally exposed to his efficacious entheogen, I began reading the book Mystic Chemist: The Life of Albert Hofmann and His Discovery of LSD, a biography co-authored by Dieter Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmüller, the team from Gaia Media Foundation who produced international psychedelic symposiums in 2006 (coinciding with Hofmann’s 100th birthday) and in 2008 (a month before Hofmann took his leave). I finished the book on April 29th, the day that Hofmann passed away five years ago.

One would expect that there’d be a lot to say about any centenarian, and this is even more the case with an individual as exceptional and influential as Albert Hofmann. Accordingly, Mystic Chemist is an oversized (21×26 cm) book weighing in at 384 pages. Beautiful photographs supplement the text throughout, with one or more images on damn near every page of the book. Considering the fact that for nearly half of Hofmann’s life, black and white photography was the norm, the authors have done a wonderful job including a multitude of color photos. Countless quotations from Hofmann, his friends, colleagues, and admirers, are liberally peppered throughout the book. No mere “pull quotes” that repeat content that’s already appeared, these are instead thoughtfully selected sidebars, relevant to—but not constricted by—the primary content that they supplement.

Following the authors’ introduction, Stanislav Grof kicks things off with several reminiscences from his times spent with Hofmann, including a stop by the White House in Washington, DC and visit to the H.R. Giger Art Museum in Gruyères. When describing a small-village celebration held at a quaint old inn on the evening of Albert’s 100th birthday, Grof notes: “Children brought Albert flowers, recited poems, and sang songs. In this moving ceremony, we did not hear LSD mentioned once; we were not sure if the villagers in Berg even knew what Albert had contributed to the world. They were just celebrating a wonderful neighbor who had reached the very respectable age of one hundred years.” Grof’s fondness for the man who he considers to be his “spiritual father” is quite touching, and his foreword is the perfect start to this important book.

Since Albert Hofmann’s story began 107 years ago, Dieter and Lucius then take us back in time, setting the stage by describing the beginnings of the Modern Era, when the industrial revolution, capitalism, and technological innovations were booming. Railways expanded their reach, electricity began to permeate into U.S. cities, the radio was patented, and telegraphs formed the first electronic communications network. I smiled when I saw the authors’ remark, “Women won the right to participate in public life in many countries,” with its implied understanding that while the world’s first female members of parliament came into power within the Russian Empire the year after Hofmann was born, women’s suffrage wasn’t adopted federally in Switzerland until the year that Hofmann retired at age 65 from his work at Sandoz, in 1971. (Much further into the book, that detail is again referenced when Albert and his wife Anita decide in 1963 to move to a delightful house in Burg, and the authors point out that, “Burg had 251 inhabitants at the end of the eighteenth century of whom 64 were entitled to vote.”)

We learn about Albert’s parents and his family life, about his education, and about some of the primary experiences from his youth that informed his worldview. He was athletic, inclined toward arts and humanities, and he surprised those who knew him when he announced that he’d decided to become a chemist. For Albert, his love of nature and his enthusiasm for learning made it a clear choice: he wanted to gain a better understanding of how the world is constructed.

Some of the successes and challenges of his work at Sandoz are then presented, and the tale of how he met his wife-to-be, Anita Guanella, at a costume ball is described. (It was love at first sight—once she had removed her mask—and Albert knew instantly, “She is going to be my wife.”) And as is expected of all able-bodied Swiss men, Albert performed his mandatory military stint.

Scholars of psychedelics and enthusiasts of entheogens are likely to be familiar with acid’s creation and discovery story, which frames the foundation for their chemical culture. LSD—Mein Sorgenkind, Hofmann’s presentation of the tale reached a German-speaking audience in 1979, with Jonathan Ott’s English translation appearing a year later. Quite reasonably, Dieter and Lucius retread this ground. But what makes Mystic Chemist such an entertaining read are the new details that the authors include when describing already well-known aspects of the story. It turns out that LSD—My Problem Child was slated to appear in 1980 as part of a co-promotion campaign featuring two related books also published by McGraw-Hill: Wasson’s The Wondrous Mushroom and Schultes and Hofmann’s Plants of the Gods. (Indeed, my own first edition of the LSD book still contains a flyer advertizing the other two books.) However, when the board of directors in New York discovered these books within the Science section of their latest catalog, they were appalled. “Drug” books were not appropriate for McGraw-Hill’s image! The executive responsible was fired, and the publisher’s top management made a point to withdraw any promotional support for all three titles. Sales were understandably slow, and the books ended up being remaindered at a large discount. Hofmann was disappointed. But it didn’t take too many years until the savvy Californian publisher Jeremy P. Tarcher learned of the debacle, obtained the publishing rights, and the book became a success, running into several additional printings. (Tarcher’s edition was the second book on psychedelics that I purchased in my youth.)

Mystic Chemist goes on to describe the circumstances surrounding how Jonathan Ott met Hofmann and was recruited to translate the book. But the authors left out one detail of the McGraw-Hill fiasco that seems worth mentioning. Hofmann’s translator had the foresight to purchase a decent number of the discounted books, which both he and Albert then autographed. For a time, those signed first editions went for $100 each; and these days, other folks ask $500 to $1,000 per copy. Over the years, LSD—My Problem Child has been translated into multiple languages and released in various editions in English. (Before his death, Hofmann arranged with Amanda Feilding of The Beckley Foundation for a new and updated translation to be co-published with Oxford University Press; that edition—published on April 19 of 2013—also contains the text of Hofmann’s book, Insights/Outlooks.)

But the added details regarding what occurred following Albert’s discovery don’t merely deal with matters related to publishing. For example, those familiar with the tale of Bicycle Day will recall that Albert’s lab assistant accompanied him on that Radlfahrt from Sandoz back to his home. But LSD—My Problem Child doesn’t mention the fact that his assistant was a 21-year-old woman named Susi Ramstein. Susi was the only female apprentice at Sandoz, and on June 12, 1943, she became both the first woman and the youngest experimental subject in the lab to drop acid. She initially took 100 mics—a higher dose than either Albert’s co-worker Ernst Rothlin or his supervisor Arthur Stoll had tried—and she had a good experience. And although everyone working with Albert took acid at least once, Susi tried it two more times in order to help out with establishing standards for the medical use of LSD.

At this point, Mystic Chemist branches out to follow the larger story surrounding the myriad paths that Albert’s problem child traversed, and the trials and tribulations that followed his kid around the globe. Covert CIA shenanigans and military mind control. Mexico’s magic Mazatec mushrooms and morning-glories. Sacred psychoactive sage. Sound science, mystical musings, and recreation run amok. The new friends and colleagues drawn into Albert’s life and the cultural impact of LSD. Huxley, Jünger, Wasson, and Schultes. Osmond, Hubbard, and Stolaroff. Leary, Alpert, and Metzner. Janiger, Cohen, Hollingshead, Beresford, Kesey, Stanley, Sand, Scully, Grof, Halifax, Pahnke, Watts. The Hippies. The Diggers. The Dead. The Beatles. Hendrix and Woodstock. Backlash. Abuse. Prohibition. Prison. Possibilities…

It’s a huge tale, and one that has already been told many times from myriad perspectives. But Mystic Chemist does two things quite well that are largely lacking from other treatments of the topic. First and foremost, the authors always bring the story back to Hofmann. Their focus on Hofmann as a person—rather than solely focusing on the compound LSD—allows ample opportunity to discuss what Albert thought and felt, not only about LSD, but also with regard to his ideas about spirituality and science. Within the book Hofmann’s grandson, Simon Duttwyler, remarks, “I am amazed at how readily comprehensible his writings are. One of his great achievements was that he could write simply and clearly about complicated and complex topics.” A talent for comprehensible writing was unquestionably one of Hofmann’s strengths, even when the question at hand isn’t that complicated. For example, when the old philosophical chestnut—”Does a tree that falls in a forest make a sound if there is no one there to hear it?—came up (again, sigh) in a discussion with my wife and daughter (who seemingly don’t grok that this nut ain’t hard to properly crack), I was happy to have recently read the summation by Dieter and Lucius of Albert’s philosophy regarding the nature of reality: his metaphor of the fundamental structure being an ongoing co-dependant “transmitter-receiver” processes. This provided me with several concrete examples from scientific fields that I could quickly rattle off in another of my perpetually failed attempts to clarify this apparently too simple hypothetical. (A few weeks later, to my delight, I laughed on discovering that—within the text of another book, Hofmann’s Elixir: LSD and the New Eleusis by Amanda Feilding—Albert had actually addressed the same “chestnut” and, “He was of the decided opinion that there would be no noise. Only silence.” p. 90.)

The second thing that this book does well is that it compiles impressions about Hofmann directly from the numerous people who were close to the man over the course of his long life, allowing for an intimate portrait of the man to be painted. The book is an immense labor of love; and really, the only way that a biography this engaging and detailed could be produced is if it was created by dear friends of the book’s subject, with the assistance of the subject’s family, sharing stories and allowing access to archives.

Within any book of this sort, there are a few nits that the professional drug geek might pick. As well, since the book was originally published in German, there are occasional spots—particularly in the “Flesh of the Gods” chapter—where the translation seems to have broken down somewhat. But such “flaws” are trivial, really, within what was one of the most enjoyable books that I have read in a long while. Hagenbach and Werthmüller are to be commended on their valuable contribution to the literature in this field. Mystic Chemist is a must read for anyone interested in the history of psychedelics.

3 Comments »

  1. Comment by Anonymous — 6/18/2013 @ 2:37 am

  2. Comment by Anonymous — 6/23/2013 @ 6:43 pm

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