Inventor’s papers, shunned by Sandoz, now under the care of Swiss dairy farmer
By John Letzing October 19, 2015
BERN, Switzerland—Albert Hofmann realized he had invented LSD after a vivid experiment in 1943. The Swiss chemist retired a few decades later, and his personal archive began a long, strange trip that ended at a quiet institute in this leafy city—where it is looked after by a part-time dairy farmer.
Beat Bäche, who is writing a book about hallucinogen-producing fungus when he isn’t milking cows at a farm where he works, curates Dr. Hofmann’s papers. That is because Mr. Bäche is nearly the only person to use the archive since it arrived at Bern’s Institute of Medical History in 2013.
Just one other scholar, a student from Zurich, showed up briefly last year.
Although Mr. Bäche doesn’t officially work there, the institute directed questions about the archive to him. On a recent day, he riffled through items including Dr. Hofmann’s formulas and photos, his correspondence with psychedelics advocate Timothy Leary, and a presentation for the Swiss army on military uses for the drug.
Roger Liggenstorfer, a friend of Dr. Hofmann’s, says the late chemist wanted researchers flocking to his archive. The current situation is “not really the wish of Albert,” he says.
The archive’s tortuous path, from Switzerland to Los Angeles, to the suburbs of San Francisco, and then back to Europe for an anticlimactic ending, reflects the tensions between Dr. Hofmann’s orderly Swiss life and the messy cultural baggage tied to his most famous discovery.
Now, the archive is poised for fresh attention. Mr. Liggenstorfer is planning a public event of some sort in 2018, to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Dr. Hofmann’s first LSD experiment, which may include the archive.
Dr. Hofmann’s family isn’t opposed to the idea, and hopes publicity will highlight the recent resurgence of legal medical treatments that use LSD and other hallucinogens.
A short walk from Mr. Liggenstorfer’s absinthe bar in the city of Solothurn, a psychiatrist named Peter Gasser provides therapy with LSD, which stands for lysergic acid diethylamide. Before he died in 2008, at age 102, Dr. Hofmann was pleased to see the work under way, his family says.
Not everyone is fan of LSD, though. Dr. Hofmann worked at Sandoz AG, which is now a part of the Basel-based pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG.
After LSD was widely criminalized in the 1960s, Sandoz wanted little to do with Dr. Hofmann’s legacy, his family says. When Dr. Hofmann retired in 1971, the company told him to take his LSD archive home, according to his son Andreas.
A Novartis spokesman said he was unable to comment on the archive’s fate. He noted Novartis held an event in 2006, to mark Dr. Hofmann’s 100th birthday.
“That seemed to be the closing event, LSD-wise, for Novartis,” says Dr. Hofmann’s grandson, Simon Duttwyler, who is a chemistry professor in China. “They don’t want to be mentioned together with hippies.”
Andreas Hofmann says that after his father retired, he felt the best place for his archive would be with a nonprofit group in Los Angeles called the Albert Hofmann Foundation.
In the U.S., Dr. Hofmann is celebrated on funky T-shirts, and his initial self-experiment with LSD—on April 19, 1943, which included a bicycle ride home from the laboratory—is commemorated in some cities as “Bicycle Day.” A Bicycle Day event in San Francisco this year featured DJs and charged up to $100 per ticket.
It was a ride lasting a half an hour, Mr. Duttwyler says, taken in the throes of an acid trip: “I think he was glad that no accident happened.”
Dr. Hofmann didn’t discuss his work with his family. His son, Andreas, now a retired architect, didn’t realize what a phenomenon LSD had become until he moved to New York for a few years in the 1960s. There, a colleague casually mentioned having tried the drug, and wondered if Andreas knew the Swiss scientist with the same last name who invented it.
Mr. Hofmann, who had thought of LSD as something only used in laboratories, quickly studied up. “I didn’t have any idea,” he says.
Neither Andreas Hofmann nor Mr. Duttwyler has ever tried LSD. “It’s not on my urgent to-do list,” Mr. Duttwyler says.
Dr. Hofmann, however, dabbled.
Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist and friend of Dr. Hofmann’s living in California, remembers the chemist enjoying his garden under the influence.
Dr. Grof, an 84-year-old listed as an adviser on the Albert Hofmann Foundation’s dated website, says he isn’t sure what became of the group. Some board members have died. Others didn’t respond to requests for comment. After the foundation took possession of Dr. Hofmann’s archive, it mostly sat in storage, Andreas Hofmann says.
In 2002, the archive was moved near San Francisco, to be digitized.
By the following year, Mr. Liggenstorfer helped to bring the papers back to Switzerland. They sat in storage in Solothurn.
After Dr. Hofmann died, his family considered placing the archive at a new public research center in his house near Basel. But Mr. Duttwyler says it was difficult to find a viable plan, or necessary funding.
In addition, Dr. Hofmann’s house had already started attracting random LSD fans, his grandson says. “Sometimes, very strange people,” Andreas Hofmann adds. The house was sold.
Dr. Hofmann’s family is cautious about his legacy. They say they don’t want it exploited in a way that could mar the legitimate medical work now being done with LSD.
Andreas Hofmann says the family eventually realized the most responsible decision was to place his father’s archive, along with other mementos he left behind, at the institute in Bern. He is looking forward to publicizing it after the collection is further organized.
That task has fallen to Mr. Bäche, the part-time dairy farmer, who expects to be finished by the summer. He likes the idea of publicizing the archive, but has reservations. He is concerned about people who might “want to just come and touch things.”
Mr. Bäche sifted through a box of letters sent to Dr. Hofmann by fans. “They’d tell him how much this substance changed their lives,” he said, and smiled. “It was a little bit too much.”