Learning from a '50s Housewife on Acid

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

ByABC News
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.