The Effects of Psychotropic Drugs
One of the stranger claims to fame of the Department of Psychology at Harvard is that it was once home to two of the leading figures in the 1960s counterculture and culture of psychedelic drugs.
In 1960, two promising young psychologists at Harvard, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, began to explore the effects of psychotropic substances on the human mind.
They reasoned that psychology is the study of the mind, including its relationship to the brain, body, and environment. Psychology, they argued, has a legitimate interest in how cognition, perception, and emotion are affected by mind-altering substances. At the time, the possible dangers of researching such substances were not as well known as they were in subsequent decades.
With a Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University, Richard Alpert came to Harvard in 1953 as an assistant professor. In the early part of his career Alpert conducted personality and social psychology research.
Timothy Leary received his Ph.D. in psychology from Berkeley University, and came to lecture at Harvard in 1959. Leary’s early research focused on the interaction of dimensions of personality and social relationships; he also worked as a psychotherapist.
Shortly after Leary’s arrival at Harvard, he and Alpert started the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Psilocybin is an entheogenic hallucinogen which naturally occurs in certain species of mushrooms; Leary and Alpert sought to document its effects on human consciousness by administering it to volunteer subjects and recording their real-time descriptions of the experience. At the time of Leary and Alpert’s research at Harvard, neither LSD nor psilocybin were illegal substances in the United States.
By 1962 various faculty members and administrators at Harvard were concerned about the safety of Leary and Alpert’s research subjects, and critiqued the rigor of their unorthodox methodology (in particular, the researchers conducted their investigations when they, too, were under the influence of psilocybin). Leary and Alpert’s colleagues challenged the scientific merit of their research, as well as the seemingly cavalier attitude with which it was carried out (e.g. poorly controlled conditions, non-random selection of subjects). Editorials printed in the Harvard Crimson accused Alpert and Leary of not merely researching psychotropic drugs but actively promoting their recreational use.
Leary and Alpert insisted on the scientific purpose of their endeavors, and agreed to policies intended to protect their subjects, including a prohibition on participation by undergraduate students. Initially Leary and Alpert only used volunteer (if not fully informed) graduate students in their research. However, in the spring of 1963 Harvard was forced to dismiss Alpert after he administered psilocybin to an undergraduate student off-campus. Leary was also fired from the university, and the Harvard Psilocybin Project came to an abrupt end.
Discredited by their lack of scientific rigor and failure to observe established research guidelines, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were both banished from academia, but that was far from the end of their public lives: both men went on to become icons of the psychedelic drug, counterculture, and human potential movement. Leary became famous for the slogan “Tune in, Turn On, Drop Out”: Alpert, under the name Baba Ram Dass, wrote a popular book called Be Here Now, described as a “modern spiritual classic.”
Capshew, J.H. (1999). Psychologists on the March: Science, practice, and professional identity in America, 1929-1969. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Krassner, P., Ed. (2001). Psychedelic Trips for the Mind. New York: Trans-High Corporation.
Leary, T. (1983). Flashbacks: An Autobiography. Los Angeles, CA: J.P. Tarcher, Inc.
Leary, T. & Alpert, R. (1962). Letter to the Editor. The Harvard Crimson, December 13, 1962.
Sigel, E. (1962). Psilocybin expert raps Leary, Alpert on drugs. The Harvard Crimson, December 12, 1962