Before Timothy Leary was an outspoken advocate of mind-altering exploration, before he became a counter-cultural icon, before Richard Nixon dubbed him "the most dangerous man in America," and before he had even begun to dabble in hallucinogens, he was something much milder: a Harvard psychology professor.
So who was responsible for ushering the clinical psychologist through the doors of perception?
According to a New Yorker story by Michael Pollan that looks at the ways researchers are using psychedelics to treat mental illnesses, the responsible party was a banker by the name of R. Gordon Wasson.
In 1957, Wasson wrote an account in Life Magazine of a journey he'd taken two years earlier into Southern Mexico in order to seek out the "holy communion" with "divine" mushrooms.
As Pollan writes, "Wasson's awed first-person account of his psychedelic journey during a nocturnal mushroom ceremony inspired several scientists" — including Leary — "to take up the study of psilocybin," the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
Wasson's essay, which you can read online here, is definitely worth a look.
By day, the amateur mycologist was a vice-president at JP Morgan. But according to his own account, he and his wife (a pediatrician) had been searching to understand "the strange role of toadstools in the early cultural history of Europe and Asia" for 30 years.
From what he writes, it sounds like his first trip was a powerful experience:
The visions had started. They reached a plateau of intensity deep in the night, and they continued at that level until about 4 o'clock. We felt slightly unsteady on our feet and in the beginning were nauseated.
We lay down on the mat that had been spread for us, but no one had any wish to sleep except the children, to whom mushrooms are not served. We were never more wide awake, and the visions came whether our eyes were opened or closed. They emerged from the center of the field of vision, opening up as they came, now rushing, now slowly, at the pace that our will chose. They were in vivid color, always harmonious.
They began with art motifs, angular such as might decorate carpets or textiles or wallpaper or the drawing board of an architect. Then they evolved into palaces with courts, arcades, gardens — resplendent palaces all laid over with semiprecious stones. Then I saw a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot.
Later it was though the walls of our house had dissolved, and my spirit had flown forth, and I was suspended in mid-air viewing landscapes of mountains, with camel caravans advancing slowly across the slopes, the mountains rising tier above tier to the very heavens.
Wasson returned to Mexico several times after that first trip, and eventually wrote the widely read piece that spurred the interest of Leary and many others.
In 1960, Leary took his own journey to Cuernavaca, Mexico, to try psilocybin for himself. He went back to Harvard and started the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Within a couple of years, he started experimenting with LSD as well.
Eventually, scared of the scandal the experiments were starting to provoke, the university dismissed him.
And thus Leary's long, strange, trip began.