Humphry Osmond, 86; Coined Term ‘Psychedelic’

Times Staff Writer

The boisterous era that came to be called the Psychedelic ‘60s would have been unimaginable without the likes of Timothy Leary, Peter Max, the Grateful Dead and ... Dr. Humphry Osmond.

Osmond, who died of cardiac arrhythmia Feb. 6 at age 86 at his daughter’s home in Appleton, Wis., was the true father of the turned-on decade: The British-born psychiatrist coined the word “psychedelic” in the early 1950s, after novelist Aldous Huxley asked him for a dose of the hallucinogenic drug mescaline. Despite some fears that history would record him as “the man who drove Aldous Huxley mad,” the good doctor obliged, unwittingly setting in motion what would become a massive cultural movement

Huxley did not go mad, but he did experience a high of historic importance. He detailed his mescaline experience in the 1954 book “The Doors of Perception,” which became a bible for such leading 1960s seekers as Leary and philosopher Alan Watts. Their advocacy of mind-expanding, chemically altered states made drug-tripping mandatory for many intellectuals and the generation of youths who identified themselves as hippies -- a development that Osmond would deplore as dangerous and irresponsible. Yet the train had left the station, transporting, among others, a young songwriter named Jim Morrison, who, in tribute to Huxley’s famous book, named his band the Doors. Osmond’s concept of psychedelic went, in a few short years, from his brain to an entire society.


That the moniker for the movement could one day be traced back to an English emigre with sparkling blue eyes and a fondness for Shakespeare was inconceivable in the 1950s, when Osmond was a psychiatrist at Weyburn Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada. A native of Surrey, England, who earned his medical degree at the University of London in 1942, Osmond was interested in the biochemical roots of mental illness, a focus that had left him outside the psychiatric mainstream in Europe, where Freudian analysis was dominant. He immigrated to Canada, where he found a more hospitable environment for his theories, and later to the United States, where he worked at the University of Alabama and a psychiatric institute in New Jersey.

In 1952 he garnered attention in the medical community with his idea that schizophrenia was caused by the human body’s production of a hallucinogenic compound. With his colleague, Dr. John Smythies, he theorized that the compound had properties similar to mescaline and related to adrenaline. “This was a remarkable hypothesis,” said Dr. Abram Hoffer, who was director of psychiatric research in Saskatchewan and hired Osmond. Hoffer later became known for his treatment of schizophrenia with megadoses of vitamin B-3 and ascorbic acid, a regimen he said is largely owed to the early work of Osmond and Smythies.

Osmond advocated using mescaline to simulate the experience of schizophrenia in doctors involved in the treatment of those with the disease. Believing that the design of mental institutions was inferior to that of zoos, Osmond gave another hallucinogen, LSD, to architects in the hope that the drug would sensitize them to the spatial needs of psychotics and result in more humane environments.

His interest in the impact of architecture on human behavior stimulated the rise of socio-architecture as a field, said Robert Sommer, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis, who described his former colleague as charismatic and “a Roman candle of ideas: He shot them off right, left and sideways.”

Osmond also used LSD to treat hundreds of alcoholics. Among those he administered it to was Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Taking the idea that alcoholics have to “hit bottom” before finding the motivation to stop drinking, Hoffer said he and Osmond thought that LSD, by simulating violent deliriums, would help alcoholics “hit bottom in a safe way” and remember enough of the experience to avoid it under any circumstances. After several tries, however, Osmond found he was having trouble giving patients an awful time. “They were enjoying it,” Hoffer recalled. “Humphry was seeing a new phenomenon.”


Instead of using LSD as a stick, the researchers began to view it as a carrot -- one that could produce therapeutic, transcendental insights. They treated 2,000 alcoholics with the drug, 40% of whom stopped drinking and joined Alcoholics Anonymous, Hoffer said.

When LSD was banned in the 1960s, the therapy became moot. But what many experienced as the pleasurable effects of a hallucinogenic drug was an important discovery, one that led Osmond to secure his place in cultural history.

In the early 1950s he was contacted by Huxley, the esteemed British novelist known for his 1931 novel “Brave New World,” in which totalitarian rulers chemically coerced the world into submission. Despite that cynical view, Huxley believed in the potential of certain drugs to produce beneficial changes in consciousness. He wished to discover whether he might change his own mode of consciousness “to be able to know, from the inside, what the visionary, the medium, even the mystic were talking about.”

Having heard of Osmond’s work with mescaline, he made a request: Could the doctor, who was then still in Canada, bring him some of the drug the next time he passed through Los Angeles?

The opportunity came in May 1953, when Osmond arrived in town for a psychiatry convention. Years later, he remembered standing at a table in Huxley’s Hollywood home, dissolving the silvery, white mescaline crystals into a glass of water and worrying whether the dose -- four-tenths of a gram -- would be enough or too much.

Although it did not work as quickly as he expected, the dose proved to be just enough to launch Huxley on what he later described in his book as a splendid inner journey. He perceived the jackets of books lining his shelves as divinely aglow. He felt his being flow into a typing table and a wicker chair. He beheld the flowers in a vase with new eyes, seeing “what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation -- the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.” Mundane objects were so transfigured in his heightened state that Huxley “had an inkling of what it must feel like to be mad.”

After the effects of the mescaline wore off, he wrote “The Doors of Perception,” a title borrowed from a line by poet William Blake. “If the doors of perception were cleansed,” Blake wrote, “everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

Huxley and Osmond became close intellectual mates. “It was really delightful to see these two men speak so fast about every possible subject,” Huxley’s widow, Laura, told The Times last week. “They were bouncing all over the universe.”

Among the many things they discussed was the need for a new name for substances like mescaline, which then were called psychotomimetics for their ability to mimic the qualities of psychosis in users. Osmond sought a name that de-emphasized the pathological effects and highlighted the wondrous. He had tried the substances himself and pronounced his experiences with them among “the most strange, most awesome and ... most beautiful things in a varied and fortunate life.”

In an exchange of letters, Huxley proposed that the drugs be called phanerothymes, which was taken from Greek and Latin words related to spirit or soul. He incorporated the word in a couplet he sent to Osmond: “To make this trivial world sublime/Take half a Gramme of phanerothyme.”

Osmond “thought that was a stupid word,” recalled Alex Randall, a former student of Osmond’s who teaches communication at the University of the Virgin Islands. “He said, ‘That word will never catch on.’ ”

The word Osmond preferred also had Greek roots, but it meant “mind-manifesting.” He replied to Huxley with a couplet of his own: “To fathom hell or soar angelic/Just take a pinch of psychedelic.”

For Osmond, it was just a short trip from there to posterity.