LSD research in Basel - a 75 year trip

Roy Lichtenstein
“Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in coloured fountains”

This is how Dr Albert Hofmann described the first ever LSD trip, 75 years ago today. Hofmann discovered LSD while he was trying to develop new drugs for Sandoz pharmaceutical company in the Swiss city of Basel. After trying his creation, the dramatic effects kicked in during his six mile cycle home from work to the southern district of Binningen — also the birthplace of Roger Federer.

Basel is known for its ornate houses, pharmaceutical-fuelled wealth and - according to other Swiss - a slight feeling of superiority. While Federer fits this image, the father of a psychedelic drug does not. Yet everyone I meet as I walk Hofmann’s cycle route knows the story, and most seem proud of it.

Basel-born Roger Federer on the route cycled by Hofmann

In fact, a room in Basel Kunstmuseum’s new, monochrome extension is devoted to Hofmann. In the centre of the room is a white cube, from which three sets of untangled headphones hang neatly. I put them on and the distinctive, wailing guitar riffs of China Cat Sunflower by the Grateful Dead pipe into my ears.

Around me are Hofmann’s notebook, a clay model of the man on his bike, and a piece of trippy Roy Lichtenstein pop art — a woman crying a single tear. I sit there for half an hour and only Karl, a 30-something in faded jeans, tries the headphones. The other, well-heeled visitors pass briskly by to an exhibition on the Basel Peace Congress of 1912.

A display of Hofmann’s notebook and instruments at Basel’s Kunstmuseum

Basel’s link to LSD is not just a historical one. Stefan Borgwardt, a psychiatry professor at the university and hospital, is putting the city back at the forefront of research into the drug.

His office scores highly on a game of ‘academic stereotype bingo’. Three large bookshelves burst with well-thumbed psychiatric tomes, tropical plants are turning yellow from lack of attention. There are Christmas cards on the windowsill and a calendar of Icelandic landscapes is still turned to October — we are meeting in March.

Research into LSD was banned worldwide, partly because of how the drug was used — and misused — recreationally. But when the law was relaxed recently, Stefan moved quickly to set up a trial. Unlike many academic trials, he had no problem attracting volunteers. The challenge was filtering out drug users motivated by something other than the pursuit of science. Brain imaging scans showed that LSD reduced the volunteers’ responses to fear and anxiety.

Professor Stefan Borgwardt in his office

So Stefan is now starting a second trial to test whether LSD can help sufferers of anxiety and depression. The research is controversial — a local newspaper has accused Stefan of “sending students on an LSD trip” while some scientists worry it could lead to addiction.

In a left-wing bar ironically located near the looming glass headquarters of the pharmaceutical firm Roche, I try and find out more about LSD use in Basel today. In one corner, a man is nursing a pilsner underneath a lamp with stickers of radical slogans stuck subvertively on its inside. He tells me about Indian-inspired gatherings in the mountains. They are secretive and illegal but, in a reassuringly Swiss touch, drugs at these gatherings are apparently sold in an efficiently-run shop with volunteer medics on standby.

Stefan Borgwardt’s voice rises with excitement as he describes the therapeutic possibilities of LSD. Only half of people actually benefit from anti-depressants, he claims — his slow, Germanic speech pattern quickening. There is currently no drug available for the rest. And the evidence so far suggests that the effect of two small doses can last for many months — a big advantage, given that anti-depressants often fail because people forget to take them, or stop taking them too early. But Stefan is not looking too far ahead — first he needs to see how the trial goes, then he must convince the regulators to approve LSD as a medication.

Professor Borgwardt outside Hofmann’s office

From his window, Stefan can almost see the building where Hofmann worked, and where people from all over the world will congregate to cycle the famous route next week. Stefan clearly admires Hofmann, who died in 2008 at the age of 102, even though he never met him. But he often meets Hofmann’s colleagues, who studied LSD before it was banned.

“These guys are so happy to see the new wave of research,” he says. “They feel…”

He pauses, searching for the word auf Englisch.

“Vindicated?”, I suggest.

“Yes.” He smiles. “Vindicated.

This piece was first broadcast on From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4