In the popular Netflix documentary series How to Change Your Mind, host Michael Pollan briefly touches on the academic ecosystem in which psychedelic drugs were studied after LSD was synthesized in Switzerland. A much, much closer look at this ecosystem can be found in a new book titled Harvard’s Quixotic Pursuit of a New Science, written by the Washington-based attorney Patrick L. Schmidt.
Schmidt’s book, which evolved from an undergraduate thesis project, traces the convoluted but surprisingly dramatic history of the Department of Social Relations, a decades-long attempt by some of Harvard’s most forward-thinking faculty members to combine the rising disciplines of sociology, cultural anthropology, and personality psychology into a single program.
The Department of Social Relations was established in 1946 in response to the Second World War, which raised questions about human nature and man’s place in society that older, more authoritative disciplines such as history, economics and government failed to answer. Although the department no longer exists, it made valuable contributions to the college and country alike.
For instance, at the start of the Cold War, the American government asked Social Relations faculty to study Soviet citizens and social institutions to figure out how the country would respond to coordinated attacks from the U.S. army. To the Pentagon’s dismay, researchers concluded the USSR was built on strong foundations that would take decades to corrode.
The most infamous chapter in Schmidt’s history takes place during the 1960s, the decade Social Relations—always on the lookout for out-of-the-box thinkers—hired Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. Before Leary took to wearing his signature Nehru-collared shirts and love-beads, he was a self-described “caricature of a professor,” sporting a tweed-jacket with those unsightly leather elbow patches.
Leary had been brought to Harvard by David McClelland, director of Social Relations’ Center for Research in Personality. McClelland was impressed by Leary’s book Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality: A Functional Theory and Methodology for Personality Evaluation and hoped he would elevate psychology at Harvard. Leary did, though not—as Schmidt writes—“in the way McClelland had imagined.”
Leary alarmed his colleagues long before he began experimenting with psychedelic drugs. While teaching an advanced graduate seminar on the theory and practice of psychotherapy, he encouraged students to conduct fieldwork not at hospitals and clinics, but community centers, orphanages, jails, and other places where people lacked access to the psychiatric care they so desperately needed.
Leary became interested in psychedelics after taking magic mushrooms on a visit to Mexico in 1960. When Sandoz synthesized psilocybin a few years later, he requested a sample for research purposes. To Leary’s delight, the pharmaceutical company provided him with a giant bottle of pills. Attached to the package was a note: “Here’s a starter kit to get going and please send us a report of the results.”
Even in the progressive Department of Social Relations, Leary struggled to find colleagues willing to follow him down this road. Fortunately, he found a friend in Alpert, an assistant professor of clinical psychology and education. Schmidt says the two became friends because they were the only bachelors in the department, and the only teachers to offer office hours at night.
Together, Leary and Alpert set up three experiments. In the first, also known as the Harvard Psilocybin Project, graduate students from Harvard and other schools in Boston were given psilocybin and asked to write a report about their trips. In the second experiment, they offered psilocybin to prison inmates in the hope it would diminish recidivism.
In the third and final experiment, which eventually became known as the Good Friday Experiment, Leary and Alpert gave psilocybin to divinity students at the Andover Newton Theological School to see if it would cause them to have religious experiences. (Leary himself described his introduction to magic mushrooms in Mexico as “religious” in nature and wondered if others would do the same.)
The experiments made Leary and Alpert popular with students and unpopular with Harvard’s administrators—both for the same reason. Insisting that psilocybin should be taken in a non-clinical setting, sessions were held in people’s homes and apartments rather than in labs. This way, as the Harvard Psilocybin Project progressed, “it became less experimental, acquiring a partylike atmosphere.”
News about the experiment-parties spread quickly. Their inhibitions removed, ecstatic students phoned their parents to share fragments of their beautiful but admittedly concerning visions. Disapproving scholars promoted reports that experiments devolved into “mystical orgies” and that Alpert exchanged drugs with undergraduate men “in exchange for sexual favors.”
The professors were allowed to continue their experiments under the condition that they stop involving undergraduate students. This may have been for the better considering the average undergrad was more interested in consuming drugs than researching them. Also, two young students had been sent to mental institutions after taking psychedelics.
Not every test subject was enthusiastic about their trip. “There’s no wisdom there,” one student recorded. “I solved the secret of the universe last night, but this morning I forgot what it was.” The American novelist John Kerouac, an acquaintance of Leary’s, reached a similar verdict: “Got high but had funny hangover of brainwashed emptiness…Me take no more.”
Leary and Alpert protested Harvard’s interference in their work. While undergraduate students were less bookish than their graduate counterparts, they were also more enthusiastic and open-minded. Now that they were barred from the experiments, they would try to obtain and consume psychedelics without the supervision of responsible adults.
The students who went mad from their trips deserve sympathy and the student who did not find his trip academically valuable makes a fair point. Statistically, however, they were the exception rather than the norm. Undeterred—indeed motivated—by Richard Nixon’s condemnations, drug use at Harvard developed into a supportive, welcoming, and generally good-natured culture.
“Drugs were becoming ultra-trendy,” Leary recalled. “Every weekend the Harvard resident houses were transformed into spaceships floating miles above the Yard … For the most part the drug epidemic Cambridge seemed benign. Hundreds of Harvard students expanded their minds, had visions, read mystical literature, and wrote intelligent essays about their experiences. It seemed to us they were benefitting.”
Benefitting or not, the psilocybin experiments soon came to end altogether. In 1963, Leary’s contract with Harvard was terminated for failing to attend his own lectures, though Leary contested this claim and suspected it was nothing more than an easy excuse to show him the door. Later that year Harvard refused to renew Alpert’s contract, sending him off as well.
Despite its brief lifespan, the Harvard Psychedelic Project could have only occurred at Harvard, inside the Department of Social Relations. The tolerance for and—more importantly—interest in Leary and Alpert’s research was the result of a larger battle being waged at the university between tenured professors who wanted to preserve academic tradition and newcomers who wanted to develop new ways of thinking.
Like the Harvard Psychedelic Project, the Department of Social Relations itself was eventually terminated by Harvard faculty. Yet while Social Relations is largely forgotten, the legacies of Leary and Alpert live on. With cultural norms shifting, the academic world is once again studying the effects and benefits of psychedelics. Every study published today is in some way connected to the Project.