April 19: Bicycle Day. Celebrating Albert Hofmann’s ‘Problem Child’

bicycle day

Often considered as the father of modern psychedelic research, Albert Hoffmann’s contributions to science and the knowledge of hallucinogenic chemistry are foundational. He, and his ‘problem child’ LSD, are traditionally celebrated on the day that would infamously become known as “Bicycle Day”, April 19th. Seventy-six years ago today, Hofmann intentionally consumed 250ug of pure LSD, resulting in the first and most famous trip of all time.

A native of Switzerland, he authored over 100 articles, chapters and books over his career, the most famous of which being LSD: Mein Sorgenkind (LSD: My Problem Child). The autobiography describes how his discovery of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) in 1938 profoundly shaped his life and work. He was the first to synthesize, ingest and understand the mind-bending power of LSD.

After his success with LSD and the reputation that he fostered, Hofmann was further tasked with being the first to isolate and synthesize the active compounds found in ‘magic’ mushrooms. Psilocybin and psilocin were both named by him in 1959 after the genus of mushrooms in which they were first found. Psilocybe mexicana received the honour of being the primary specimen, acquired through R. Gordon Wasson and Roger Heim, the preeminent experts in early psychedelic science and discovery.

Contributing to science from an early age

Albert Hofmann began his studies at the University of Zurich, where he conducted significant research that contributed to the understanding of the chemical structure of chitin. This substance is common among animals but also contributes to the integrity of many fungi. It can provoke allergies or reactions, a primary cause of negative physiological effects of mushroom consumption. This research granted him his doctorate degree with distinction in 1929.

He proceeded to a pharmaceutical research position at the industry-leading Sandoz Laboratories located in Basel, Switzerland where he worked under the founder of the pharmaceutical department, Arthur Stoll, who had isolated the active compound ergotamine from the ergot fungus in 1918. This chemical eventually proved effective for headache and migraine relief, being introduced to the market as Gynergen in 1921.

This open-minded and curious environment enabled Hofmann to pursue his interests. His particular focus landed on lysergic acid and its many derivatives. This acid is the precursor for many ergoline alkaloids—hallucinogenic compounds found in the Ergot fungus and the seeds of morning glory (Turbina corymbosa, Ipomoea tricolor) and the Hawaiian baby woodrose (Argyreia nervosa). Amides of lysergic acid form the group lysergamides, of which LSD is a member.

Hofmann’s major discovery

While researching and experimenting with these lysergic acid derivatives, Hofmann synthesized LSD for the first time on the 16th of November, 1938. This discovery was the product of a search for medically-relevant ergot alkaloids spearheaded by Stoll. It wasn’t until early 1943, five years later, that Hofmann discovered the psychedelic effects of LSD by accidentally consuming an unknown dose which precipitated:

“…a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed… I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

Not long after, on the 19th of April, 1943, Hofmann undertook the first intentional LSD experience. He ingested 250 micrograms of LSD, currently considered to be a strong or heavy dose, before leaving from work for the day. This day has come to be known as “Bicycle Day”, after the location where Hofmann first begin to feel the effects of his extraordinary discovery. His ride home from work would become one of the most famous in history.

Sandoz would go on to market LSD as a psychiatric drug under the name Delysid from 1947 to the mid-1960s. It was marketed as a form of “cure-all”, to treat “everything from schizophrenia to criminal behavior, ‘sexual perversions,’ and alcoholism.” In a novel marketing move, Sandoz suggested that the psychiatrists themselves try Delysid before administering to patients, to better understand the impact this new compound provided.

LSD is just the beginning

In the years following his great discovery, Hofmann continued to explore compounds that might profoundly impact the human brain. In the late 1950s, he discovered the compound 4-Acetoxy-DET (4-acetoxy-N,N-diethyltryptamine, 4-AcO-DET), another hallucinogenic substance. This earned him directorship of the Sandoz natural products department, allowing him greater freedom to pursue new interests.

In 1959, he accepted a challenge, sent to him by the mycologist Roger Heim. The renowned ethnobiologists R. Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina had brought samples of active fungi from their excursion to Mexico. They are often considered to be the first westerners to undertake a Mazatec mushroom ritual under the guidance of the legendary shaman Maria Sabina.

These mushrooms were transported to Europe for further study and analysis. Heim named them Psilocybe mexicana in 1957, after their country of origin. These specimens were sent to Hofmann to isolate and synthesize the compound that made them “magic”. Hofmann would go on to characterize and name the substances that produce the profound effects of psilocybin mushrooms.

Further exploration and disdain for prohibition

In later years, Hofmann explored substances in the seeds of the Mexican morning glory, Turbina corymbosa. The active compound, LSA (lysergic acid amide), is shockingly similar to LSD, a fact that initially surprised him.

Hofmann’s discoveries would go on to shape the modern counter-culture and the exploration of minds and their spaces. After the expiry of the LSD patent in 1963, Timothy Leary of Harvard University, along with Aldous Huxley and Al Hubbard, espoused the benefits of the drug to the general public. The counterculture movement, and the core tenet of LSD use, was furthered by Alan Watts and Arthur Koestler throughout the 1960s. In 1968, possession of LSD was made illegal in the USA.

Hofmann commented on the compounds on the eve of his hundredth birthday, referring to LSD as “medicine for the soul”. Throwing aside his professional demeanor, he expressed frustration with the prohibition of his discovery. Through “over- and mis-use” in the 1960s, the successful psychoanalytical drug was vilified and buried under propaganda, rendering it for decades as an illegal drug for ‘hippies’.

Hofmann, A. “Psilocybin und Psilocin, zwei psychotrope Wirkstoffe aus mexikanischen Rauschpilzen.” Helvetica Chemica Acta 42: 1557–1572 (1959).

Dieter Hagenbach; Lucius Werthmüller; Stanislav Grof (2013). Mystic Chemist: The Life of Albert Hofmann and His Discovery of LSD (First English ed.). Santa Fe, NM: Synergetic Press. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-907791-46-1.