Learning from a '50s Housewife on Acid

Archival footage of a woman on LSD shows early research on the drug

January 18, 2011, 3:35 PM

Jan. 18, 2011 -- A video that made the Internet rounds Monday and Tuesday featured footage of a mid-1950s housewife on an acid trip during an LSD experiment.

In the film, a researcher, Dr. Sidney Cohen, is shown interviewing, and then dosing, a volunteer at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Los Angeles. The woman, who is identified only as the wife of a hospital employee, is in her late 20s or early 30s and appears fairly typical of her time.

"My husband is an employee here, so I volunteered," she tells Cohen, before admitting to feeling "a little nervous."

After more patter, which serves to convince the viewer that she is, in fact, normal, the woman is told to drink the acid, diluted in a glass of water. LSD was a legal pharmaceutical drug until 1966.

"Well, I think it's time for you to have your lysergic acid," says Cohen. "Drink this down and we'll be back after a while and see how you're doing."

Journalist Don Lattin says he came across the video in the archives of philosopher Gerald Heard while researching a group biography on him, the British writer Aldous Huxley, and Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. The clip comes from a broadcast show called "Focus on Sanity," he says.

In the early 1950s and into the '60s the Army and CIA secretly funded a lot of research to see if LSD could be used as a chemical weapon or a truth serum, says Lattin. "I call it a weapon of mass distraction," he jokes.

But Cohen and his ilk were pursuing a different line of study.

"Before the term psychedelic was coined, these were called psychotomimetic drugs because they mimic psychosis," says Lattin. "They were taking the research in a different direction. They wanted to understand how it works, how the mind works and the connection between the psychotic state and a spiritually enlightened state."

Indeed, Wilson, the AA co-founder, did a fair amount of LSD in the 50s , says Lattin. "This surprises people, but he wasn't doing it to get high," he adds. "It was to achieve that spiritual awakening."

In the video that Lattin posted online Monday, we return to the housewife after the drug has had some time to kick in. She is clearly under the influence and appears to be rather enjoying it.

"Everything is in color and I can feel the air," she announces. "I can see it; I can see all the molecules. Can't you see it?

When Cohen asks her how she feels inside, she looks perplexed. "Inside? I don't have any inside."

Later she says: "Everything is alive. This is reality. I wish you could see it. I wish I could talk in Technicolor."

Part of the appeal of the video, of course, is seeing a stereotypical-looking 1950s-era prim young housewife talk like a stereotypical-sounding tripping hippie.

"She had no social cues. She didn't know you were 'supposed' to talk like that on LSD. What I found fascinating about it is the mystical religious experience that people have on psychedelic drugs is real in the sense that it's not learned," Lattin, who also wrote 'The Harvard Psychedelic Club,' tells ABC News.

"I would love to track her down," he says. "If she were still alive she would be in her 70s or 80s."

The strain of research Cohen and his colleagues did with psychedelics would be picked up in the subsequent generation by Timothy Leary, whose evangelizing would cost the drug some credibility in scientific circles, says Lattin.

"This shows that very early on in the 1950s, researchers were aware that there were possible beneficial uses, rather than military or more nefarious uses," he says.

Today, studies have been approved by the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Food and Drug Agency that explore the use of MDMA, more commonly known as ecstasy, to treat veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"You can really see the beginnings of that," says Lattin, "With this early research by Cohen."

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