Timothy Leary - Biography

“Turn on, tune in, drop out.” That’s one of the most notorious dictums of the 1960s, and it was first uttered by Dr. Timothy Leary. To the extent that lysergic acid diethylamide ushered in a new era in global pop culture, Leary can be considered one of the fathers of the psychedelic era. He wasn’t solely responsible for the mass popularity of LSD – authors Tom Wolff and Ken Kesey played prominent roles, too, as did furtive chemist and engineer, Owsley “The Bear” Stanley, who undertook much of the grunt work in manufacturing and distributing the drug in quantity throughout the nascent San Francisco scene. In fact, Owsley (who was, among other things, the original soundman for the Grateful Dead) loathed Tim Leary; he thought Leary was, essentially, a media slut and a fame whore, in love with the sound of his own voice. Maybe so, but Leary, a Harvard professor, became the official “straight” advocate for the therapeutic use of LSD, and the unofficial ambassador for its recreational use. Of course, fifty years down the road, it’s clear that Leary was, to a certain extent, a crank, and that strong doses of powerful psychedelics could permanently fry people’s minds and lead to psychotic episodes (Syd Barrett, anyone?) and even violent death (“I can fly!”), but there’s no way around it: The music, art, and social revolutions of the 1960s were all profoundly influenced by LSD.

Leary was turned on to the drug by its inventor, Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann, who accidentally synthesized it while working with the ergot fungus, an alkaline poison that grows on rye grains. In the 1950s, Leary was a PhD professor of psychology at Harvard, and had been conducting studies using psilocybin mushrooms as a psychotherapeutic device; one of his volunteers was the poet Allen Ginsburg, who would provide the initial bridge to the artistic community, and the use of LSD as a recreational drug. Leary’s efforts at Harvard reached their zenith during 1961-1963 with the Concord Prison Experiment, in which a team of doctors administered LSD to prison inmates, in a purportedly successful attempt reduce high recidivism rates among parolees. However, Leary’s activities weren’t well received at the university, and he was dismissed in 1963.

Leary and several colleagues retreated to an isolated house in Millbrook, in upstate New York; it was here that he wrote the book that would provide the world with its first knowledge of LSD. The Psychedelic Experience, co-written by Leary with Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner, and published in 1965, was the user manual for the drug, based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Soon, artists, musicians, and other counter-culture freaks were arriving at Leary’s doorstep, including Kesey and his entourage, known as the Merry Pranksters. Within a year, psychedelics had saturated San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and London, and the world turned upside down. Music, art, and everything in between was under the influence, so to speak. An album was released, The Psychedelic Experience: Readings from the Book "The Psychedelic Experience. A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead” (1966 Folkways). Leary started a religion, The League for Spiritual Discovery, in an effort to get LSD categorized as a sacrament, but the government was having none of it. In October of 1966, LSD was listed as a banned substance, and all use of it as an experimental therapeutic came to an abrupt halt. In June of 1967, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, inaugurating the Summer of Love. By September of that year, San Francisco was inundated with predators, creeps, and hustlers, and it was already the beginning of the end. Leary would advocate for the benefit of lysergic acid diethylamide until his death in 1996, but by 1970, LSD was pass√©. Heroin took its place.

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