Who coined the term “psychedelic”? 5 questions for historian Erika Dyck
Dyck discusses the history of psychedelics in Canadian medicine, and what we might learn from the conversations psychedelics researchers were having 70 years ago.
Erika Dyck is professor and Canada research chair in the history of medicine at University of Saskatchewan. In a career spanning several decades, Dyck has studied the history of madness, medicine, psychiatry, eugenics and psychedelic drugs. While Dyck says she’s personally agnostic about what happens to psychedelics from a regulatory standpoint, she believes that understanding the history of these substances can inform the decisions we make about their future. The Microdose spoke with her about the history of psychedelics in Canadian medicine, and what we might learn from the conversations psychedelics researchers were having 70 years ago.
People are often familiar with the highlights of psychedelic history in the U.S. and Europe — Albert Hofmann and LSD, Timothy Leary, Esalen in California — but what were the roots of psychedelic research in Canada?
Saskatchewan is not a place where people think cool and exciting stuff happens. It’s in the middle of Canada; we’re known for harsh winters. We have a population of about a million people in a landmass about the same size as California. It’s not the kind of place where you imagine a cluster of innovation, and yet, in the 1940s, it was the first province or state-level government to elect a socialist government. That triggered many things, but in particular, health reforms.
The health minister had a personal interest in psychiatry, because he had worked as an intern at a hospital, and he saw an opportunity for innovation that aligned with the other ideological goals of his party: specifically, publicly funded health care. So, he recruited a variety of innovative thinkers to visit. For about ten years, this was the place for people to go: therapists, Alcoholics Anonymous leaders, theologians, researchers, anthropologists, even Aldous Huxley and his family doctor. That created an incubator for nourishing new ideas, which included psychedelic research.
Unlike places along the California coast, where there’s a clear way to leave, Saskatchewan was off the beaten path. This close proximity resulted in groupthink; it allowed for the establishment of language and protocols, some of which are still being used or acknowledged in psychedelic research today — like the word psychedelic, for example.
The word psychedelic was coined in Canada during this period?
Yes — Humphry Osmond, the superintendent of the mental hospital in Weyburn coined the word through his correspondence with Aldous Huxley. He had driven to Huxley’s home in Los Angeles and brought him mescaline, and they became good friends; they wrote letters frequently and visited when they could. The term psychedelic came from their attempt to find a word to capture the sensations that they felt when they had these experiences that they felt defied the existing language and vocabulary.
In 1956, Huxley wrote to Osmond saying, “To make this trivial world sublime / take half a gram of phanerothyme.” And Osmond wrote back saying: “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.” Less than a year later, he published that in the New York Academy of Sciences, and it was entered into the English lexicon.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
What can we learn from that history now?
What’s bothered me about the so-called “psychedelic renaissance” is its tendency to step over the past and ignore it, or assume we’re in a better position now. But there’s still quite a bit we could learn from history. It’s not just a matter of detailing the things that happened, but grappling with some of the difficult questions that were raised in the past and not resolved. There’s a lot of interesting material that gives us an opportunity to treat the past like a dress rehearsal. These are things like: how do we regulate psychedelics? How do psychedelics work in randomized controlled trials – more specifically, why don’t they work?
There’s also a cautionary tale of what happens if psychedelics are funded primarily through philanthropic donations. What happens when social capital with respect to psychedelics are concentrated in certain individuals, well-intentioned as they may be? What we see in the past is that particular characters became targets or amplifiers of a certain narrative about psychedelics, and I think there’s a risk in concentrating our hopes and fears in a select group of individuals rather than imagining a more diverse set of experiences which may be more true to reality. There are people who are not celebrities who have taken psychedelics and have something to say, or insights to share. By recognizing that people are going to experience substances in different ways, that might actually help us develop better harm reduction approaches to thinking about how to manage psychedelics moving forward.
What did past discussions of randomized controlled trials using psychedelics look like?
Psychedelics were introduced in the 1940s, but in a small way. There were some studies, but they didn't really pick up momentum until the 1950s. In 1952 there were something like six studies globally, but by the end of the decade, there were over a thousand studies. So there’s this real ramp up of interest and many different methods applied.
Meanwhile antipsychotic medications were introduced in France in 1952, and came to the U.S. in 1954; antipsychotics immediately got this magic bullet status as psychopharmacology is flooded with funding and expertise, which led to a paradigmatic shift in how we think about pharmacological research. With that shift came changes in methodology. The first randomized controlled trial was published in 1948, in a trial for an anti-tuberculosis medication. In the years after that, randomized controlled trials, blinding, and the use of controls were being deeply debated. There was more energy focused on pharma research on how to get medications to market and reduce risk and manage scale. The scale and pace by which pharmaceutical products were coming to market was unprecedented in human history, and hand-in-hand with that were all those new methods. Psychedelics are a part of that story, too, as they were also a part of this cultural moment; there was a lot of enthusiasm for them in that era. Researchers found that if you gave one person an active dose and another person a placebo, blinding was very difficult to maintain because it's so easy to tell who's getting the active dose versus the placebo.
Researchers also quickly realized there were interactions between the pharmacological reaction and the research setting. Some researchers were concerned with reducing all variability in trials; one of the reports I read suggested eliminating situations where attractive nurses could come in and distract patients. At the same time, they were testing a variety of other ways to control variables and to systematically measure the effect of psychedelics. But researchers struggled with how to measure mystical experiences. One person would say that on their dose, they saw God, while another said — and I am not making this up — that their arms turned into serpents. What box should a researcher check there? The desire to universalize experiences or to scale up their findings was difficult. The kinds of debates played out in ways that challenged what was at stake with randomized controlled trials.
What were the cultural forces that shaped the development of these early studies, and how does that compare to the current moment?
If we look at the culture of the 1950s, one broad historical frame is that there was the Cold War going on. It was an ideologically charged moment, and many felt cultural angst and existential angst. That filtered into the concerns and the excitement about psychedelics, which offered a kind of hope. People were not spelling it out that way — “I’m investing in psychedelics because there’s a Cold War going on” — but it created some trading zones. For instance, the Czech Republic invested in psychedelic research, which connected it to the West. That research took place across ideological borders and resulted in the sharing of methods and development of new ones. For instance, in the Czech Republic, they didn’t have Alcoholics Anonymous because it was illegal to form those clubs, but they eventually used some of the same strategies to reach men with addiction or alcoholism. Those shared ideas were reflective of prioritizing science over ideology.
Today, we’re also in a moment of existential angst or doom. The pandemic has really shaken us and challenged the way we interact socially, who we trust, where we get information. Do you trust your public health officer? Do we go marching in the streets? Should I wear a mask? In a deeper future, historians may see this as a moment of really questioning our faith in science, and I think something similar was happening in the 1950s. The specter of science was on display and public trust was on trial. The symmetry here is quite interesting, since psychedelics are bubbling up again; they’re both cultural moments where there’s a search for something else. I do think that 50 years from now, we'll look back and it will be obvious that there was a gravitational pull toward something that represented a coming together.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
The anxieties of the age shape the mindsets of people and groups, and given how sensitive a person on psychedelics is to having their internal journey branch in ways that are non-deterministic over the course of a trip, it should not be surprising to see a wide variation of expression.
One sees the Cold War influence on science fiction and I hardly think that is a special case.
Today we have the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the climate crisis all rolled in with economic uncertainty and political instability. People are probably running on cortisol, and throw in all the disinformation and it is bizarre in a way that I haven’t seen in my 63 years.
We truly need effective psychedelic therapy to help people perform a “brain reset” because society will become a chaotic mass of echo-chambered conspiracy theory spouting sticks of human TNT.
Governments need to legalize and regulate these drugs, and make them available for psychotherapeutic and ritual use. They do allow a significant reset of many dysfunctionalities of mind and society.
I think it would have been worthwhile to ask Dr. Dyck why she believes that Salvador Roquet "purposefully subjecting his patients to abuse" left "some patients [...] better off" 🚩 Indeed, Roquet was a torturer for the Dirección Federal de Seguridad wherein he (according to one source) "cured people of their subversive and antisocial behavior. The former revolutionaries were now committed to working for the betterment of Mexico [...] Having cured some of the most recalcitrant radicals, Roquet was anything but a threat to the established order"