Psychedelic Revolutionaries

15 November 2018

Psychedelic Revolutionaries: LSD and the Birth of Hallucinogenic Research
By P.W. Barber
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Michelle Shaw
$34.95 ISBN 9780889774209

Long before Timothy Leary and the psychedelic summer of love in San Francisco made LSD a global phenomenon, researchers were quietly testing the drug’s efficacy and possibilities in the middle of the Saskatchewan prairies.

Researchers Humphry Osmond, Abram Hoffer and Duncan Blewett, among others, were fascinated about the possibilities of using LSD and other psychedelic drugs to treat certain conditions such as schizophrenia and alcoholism.

Their research occurred at a unique time in Saskatchewan’s history. Tommy Douglas’s Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) government was in power, Medicare was on the horizon and the government was determined to address the huge challenges in the province’s mental health system. The government was looking for new and innovative ideas. Osmond, Hoffer and their contemporaries were in the right place at the right time. Their research appeared so successful that “the province was heralded….as a world leader in mental health in the 1950s, [and h]allucinogenic drugs figured centrally in this research.”

Although I knew very little about the topic, P.W Barber’s narrative in Psychedelic Revolutionaries: LSD and the Birth of Hallucinogenic Research is so absorbing that I was drawn into the sheer drama of Saskatchewan’s “psychedelic revolutionaries”. What I especially appreciated was the way Barber presented the trials and their subsequent “debunking” within the context of the political and social climate of the time, particularly within the psychiatric community in North America. It provided an interesting perspective on some of the decisions that were made.

The first section of the book deals with the Saskatchewan experiments themselves from 1951 to 1961 and the second deals with the scientific fallout from 1961 to 1975, including an intriguing chapter on psychedelic drug research, the CIA and the ‘60s counterculture.

The book is crammed with fascinating details such as the fact that Saskatchewan is the birthplace of the term “psychedelic.” I was also intrigued by the fact that the LSD research affected so many apparently peripheral aspects of psychiatric health including architecture. Architect Kiyoshi Izumi participated in an LSD experiment so that he could get “a clearer idea of [the world] his clients had to live with daily” and thus design a building that would be more conducive to the perceptions and well-being of the patients. His subsequent “sociopetal” hospital design recommended doing away with long corridors and creating smaller, more intimate spaces. Through his experiences with LSD, he became aware of the “monotony of one color, such as beige throughout the institution…which could immobilize a patient” and how the “ubiquitous terrazzo floor, suspended ceiling, and similar ‘uniformity’ added to the patient’s confusion in relating himself to time and space.”

The book gave me a fascinating glimpse into an aspect of Saskatchewan’s history that I never knew. And, with the opioid crisis on the rise and the legalization of marijuana rapidly approaching I found Barber’s insights especially intriguing and timely.


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