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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. Excellent review, Jon! I can’t wait to get a copy of this!

    Comment by Andre Lange — 6/18/2013 @ 2:37 am

  2. Actually, “LSD – My Problem Child” clearly mentions that the assistant was a woman – it’s only the matter of English being much more genderless compared to German and of Jonathan Ott, unfortunately, not having considered the assistant’s gender as relevant enough to mention it. It wouldn’t have been difficult – for example: “I asked my laboratory assistant, who was informed of the self-experiment, to escort me home” – transform the sentence to “I asked my laboratory assistant – I had told her before about my self-experiment – to escort me home”, and Miss Ramstein’s gender is mentioned unobtrusively.

    The original goes like this (fragments in capital letters are grammatical markers of the feminine gender): “Ich konnte nur noch mit größter Anstrengung verständlich sprechen und bat meinE LaborantIN, DIE über den Selbstversuch orientiert war, mich nach Hause zu begleiten”. I first read “Problem Child” in the English translation in 1998, much later, in 2006, the original came and I still remember my scream of joy when I saw these words. I’m both a feminist and a psychonaut (well, until last year only a theorist, a would-be psychonaut) and I can’t forget about the Social and Cultural Presence of Women (that’s how I write it, with these quasi-ironic capital letters – in Polish it produces the abbreviation “skok”, or “jump”...), I can’t consider it unimportant. I wrote about her in my diary several times…

    10th August 2008:

    “To be aware of all dimensions, aspects of her situation – this is what it means to work in the area of psychedelic theory with a political and social sensitivity, and first of all gender sensitivity, this is what it means to study women’s history. “Transcend the plots of ‘literature’ and ‘historiography’”, because this story is something more, there are still too many factors which make women’s lives repetitive, predictable. Maybe a psychedelic experience can go beyong this predictability, break though determined frameworks – but it doesn’t have to. I must remember her and not my representation. I recently read a report by some guy, who – had a rendezvous with the Problem Child? – and had a vision of Hofmann riding his bicycle through the starlit sky. Let me see her at least in a dream – but not the myth, for false transcendence is too familiar a strategy of erasing real problems of real women.

    A pendant to the story Mrs. Seiler is working on? [The actual result was this very chapter about Susi Ramstein.] I don’t know, I’ll have to wait. But it’s invigorating to see that we remember women. Not because we are wise and aware. But because they are important.”

    Anyway, I still haven’t read this book, also in its original version – too expensive… If someone would be interested in translating it into Polish, I would be glad to take this job and then I could also finally grab this book…

    Comment by Nowhere Girl — 6/23/2013 @ 6:43 pm

  3. What a fantastic review!

    I am proud that you should have mentioned Susi Ramstein. Unfortunately, she was not very forthcoming with information about her own person. Rather, she was embarrassed about the LSD craze and didn’t wan to be mentioned as a supporter, and D.Hofmann didn’t write back when she congratulated him for his 100th bd. (Typically, such things are always personal in the end.)

    But this was not his intention. It’s just that he got over 600 well-wishes and Dieter, as well as Roger Liggenstorfer who was like an adopted son, persuaded Dr. Hofmann not to answer any.
    I would like to include my original text here. I’ve sent it in to Erowid before but don’t know what became of it. Incidentally, it was my friend Michael Horowitz who put up to searching for Susi.
    I wish you all the best!
    Susanne

    Susanne G. Seiler
    ———————————Susie in the Sky with Diamonds – The First Woman to Take LSD

    “In the realm of scientific observation, luck is granted only to those who are prepared.”—Albert Hofmann

    Picture yourself in a boat on the meandering Rhine as it passes through Basel, most liberal of Swiss cities, a town known for its close ties with pharmaceutics and banking as well as for a long humanistic tradition manifesting itself in a lively cultivation of the arts, sciences and sports by an enthusiastic population.

    Just outside of this lovely medieval city, in one of its the lush green suburbs, we find the home of an elder from a prominent Swiss family, Susi(e) W., born in 1922, two brothers, the father in optometry, ancestors in pharmacy and photography. At age eighty-four, she speaks with a lively, clear and distinguished voice when she phones me in answer to a letter I sent her wishing to know if she’s the one: the first woman to have taken LSD.

    Yes, she says, it’s me. I am the Susi you are looking for.

    She grew up in the inner city where the houses stand close together and neighborly ties are strong to this day. Susi was a good student, and if she wasn’t sent to college it was because girls – were – expected to marry early in those days. Instead, at age seventeen, after a year in French Switzerland where she was taught housekeeping, languages and manners, the young woman took up her training as a chemical laboratory assistant in the Pharmaceutical-Chemical Research Department of Sandoz Laboratories, in a building that has long ceased to exist.

    Some sixty years later, Sandoz fusioned with the chemical companies Ciba and Geigy to become the pharmaceutical giant Novartis. This company has 73 apprentices in their Chemistry Department this year (2011), 43 percent of them women. This relation has not varied significantly over the last ten years. In the nineteen forties, however, things were quite different, young Susi started her three year apprenticeship with Sandoz Chemical Laboratories as the only female. She was only twenty when she obtained her brief or license to handle chemicals and began her work as a Junior Assistant to Dr. Albert Hofmann, a talented chemist then in his late thirties.

    At the time when Susi took up her job analyzing samples and concocting mixtures, Albert Hofmann had already developed LSD-25, an organic derivative of the rye fungus Claviceps purpurea. Since animal tests conducted in 1938, the year of its creation, had only revealed that rats under the influence of this new substance grew somewhat restless, Hofmann had shelved it as being of no further interest. It was only in 1943, when cleaning up and accidentally getting some of the tincture on his fingers, that it produced an effect making him want to try more.

    The notion of self-ingestion may seem farfetched to a present day chemist. New drugs, designed to trigger highly precise responses in the body, undergo an approval cycle of ten years and more, involving hundreds of volunteer subjects in various countries and on all continents, in a triple blind process of trial and error, meaning not even the doctor administering the drug knows which samples are «loaded» and which mere placebos. Thus, few researchers would think of trying new drugs on themselves, unless they happened to be sufferers of the disease they aimed to cure. However, self-ingestion is a procedure with a long and respectable tradition reaching back to antiquity and the foundations of modern medicine.

    The effects perceived by Hofmann after touching some of the vial’s contents were a kind of dissociated giddiness, as well as a sense of pleasant expectation, culminating in an experience similar to what he had witnessed in childhood when he saw a particular spot in nature on a hill near his parental home in Baden bristle with light and meaning, a peak experience he had several times as a young boy and much longed to renew. The rest is history; Susi W.’s contribution being a vital footnote.

    In Hofmann’s well known book, LSD My Sorrow Child, we learn that the scientist was taken home by an assistant on Monday 16 April 1943 in the late afternoon, and what this person did for him when he was not feeling well due to the unexpectedly strong effects of the 250 micrograms of LSD-25 he had ingested, believing it to be but a tiny dose. This assistant was Susi, and she had a hard time of it since Dr. Hofmann was hardly fit to ride his bicycle, and she had to coach him along as well as manage her own mount.

    It has been written that it was as well for his own safety and for the pedestrians out in the street that day that he had no gasoline for his car. However, Dr. Hofmann didn’t own a car at the time and regularly cycled to work, unless he took the streetcar. Under the influence of LSD, the tram did not seem an option, and since it was during the height of war; there were no taxis to be found. And civilians couldn’t drive their cars anyway. The available gasoline was used up by the army.

    Susi held her boss in high regard and did not want to let him go home unaccompanied, thus she rode along with him, a journey of about five kilometers. Hofmann’s wife, Anita, had gone to visit her parents in Lucerne, taking along the two children the couple had at the time (later four). When Susi and the patient arrived at Hofmann’s home, the latter was in a bad way, fearing he was about to die. Susi called the son of Professor Stoll, Hofmann’s superior, an M.D., to come to her supervisor’s assistance, and she called Anita Hofmann who had gone out but called back later. The doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with his patient other than his hugely dilated pupils, but he stayed on to observe him. Mrs. Hofmann came home around seven and took charge. When Susi went home, Dr. Hofmann was feeling a lot better. In fact he was enjoying himself.

    Everybody in the Hofmann team tried LSD at least once; Susi tried it a total of three times. She took her first trip at age twenty-two, on 12 June 1943. Thus she was not only the first woman but, most remarkably, also the youngest person ever to experiment with this powerful substance, although the dosage had been lowered to 100 my, a party dose by today’s standards. The effects she perceived were mild and pleasant, she had beautiful visions, the world around her took on a luminous quality; it was, in her own words, »a good experience». Alerted by her superior’s cycling adventure, she chose to take the streetcar home. In those days, a conductor came to one’s seat to sell the ticket. To Susi, he seemed to have a rather large nose. Other people on the tram looked funny too. Susi was young and liked to laugh, but she wasn’t confused or destabilized and had no trouble finding her way home. She repeated the experiment twice to help established secure parameters for the medical use of LSD. It was held that a moderate dose of 100 micrograms produced a mild euphoria and an exuberant kind of self-confidence conducive to psychiatric inquiry. That acid should hit the streets and go mainstream one day wasn’t even remotely considered.

    Set and setting were not buzzwords in those days. What was the programming Susi and her young and open mind underwent? What were her mood and her expectations? The setting of the first part of the experiments was scientific, taking place at the lab. Time was recorded, notes were kept. Susi was eager to contribute to the advance of science and to help determine the usefulness of LSD. As Dr Hofmann says: «LSD finds such an application in medicine, by helping patients in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy to perceive their problems in their true significance.» (1)

    His lab assistant had also witnessed Hofmann’s reactions to his «overdose», seeing him both in sorrow as well as quite content. Following the traditional wisdom of Paracelsus, the adverse or undesired effects that her boss had experienced had to lie in the dosage. It’s just that no one wanted to believe that the chemist had only ingested such a minute quantity. This was soon confirmed by Prof. Stoll himsef. It was also true that a reduction of the dose made the effects of LSD-25 more predictable. By the time of its prohibition in the USA, in 1967, hundreds of psychologists and psychiatrists worldwide had to give up promising psychedelic research to follow the paranoid injunction of the Nixon administration: Thou shalt not know!

    But these events came to pass much later and did not affect Susi who, one year after her last experiment, left Sandoz and got married.

    Epilogue

    I did not only get a phone from Susie W. about this matter. Imagine my surprise when I picked up the phone one early evening and heard the voice of Albert Hofmann whom I had met and written about on several occasions. How are you, Mrs. Seiler, he asked me? (I had always had too much respect and admiration for him to call him Albert and had remained on formal terms.) And how are your children? he wanted to know next. I was totally blown over that the old man should not only remember me but my family as well! We hadn’t been in contact for 15 years. And this for a hundred-year-old! I felt so happy and privileged that I walked on clouds for days.

    Dr. Hofmann confirmed what I have written above. Susi W. passed away shortly before her former boss, in the fall of 2011.

    1 Foreword to LSD My Problem Child (www.psychedelic-library.org/childf.htm)

    Comment by Susanne G. Seiler — 7/19/2013 @ 10:27 pm

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