Review: LSD The Wonder Child by Thomas Hatsis

book lsd review

LSD The Wonder Child: The Golden Age of Psychedelic Research in the 1950s by Thomas Hatsis | Park Street Press | 2021

We stand far enough away from the 1950s for it to have now become historically well-revised. Taken as a whole, it is a time of mixed understandings in the anglophone world that entails readings of suburban bliss and isolated monotony, creature comforts and social anxiety, with national consensus nursing cultural malcontent.

It is also regarded as a ‘golden age’ in psychopharmacology. New drug discoveries, such as meprobamate, chlorpromazine, and benzodiazepines, flourished, promising a revolution in mental health treatment, accompanied by an explosion in the number of psychiatrists and psychotherapists. It was health’s contribution to the artificial paradise of 1950s suburbia.

However, this paradise casts a shadow. Loose regulatory frameworks helped fuel the revolution, but with unforeseen effects. While some of the substances failed to live up to expectation, others were prescribed en masse, fueling addiction rates along with the power and profit-engines of the ever-bloating health-industrial complex. Still more became staple components in growing underground drug markets—the flip side of the pharmacratic mirror.

The horrendous story of the Thalidomide crisis also exemplifies the problems with this ‘golden age’. Developed as a tranquilizer in 1950s Germany, it was marketed as a wonder drug for various different ailments in the latter half of the decade in Europe and North America.  Among those off-label prescriptions was its application to morning sickness in expectant mothers, which resulted in a raft of birth defects.

In the United States at the turn of the 1960s, the FDA drafted stringent, new drug regulations in response to this horrendous outcome. It led to the tightening of research criteria for experimental drugs, which fostered a more monopolistic pharmacracy as new financial barriers were put into place. Among many other substances caught up in this maelstrom was lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), itself a microcosm of the era’s shifting drug attitudes.

Without much regulatory oversight, and a plentiful supply through the drug’s manufacturer, Sandoz, LSD research proliferated widely, generating over a thousand papers and incredible numbers of test subjects. In LSD The Wonder Child: The Golden Age of Psychedelic Research in the 1950s (2021), historian and writer Thomas Hatsis builds a fascinating picture of the drug’s most heady days in the laboratory, and beyond.

In some aspects, it is a story already well told, notably in Acid Dreams by Martin A Lee (who has written a foreword for LSD The Wonder Child) and Bruce Shlain, and Storming Heaven by Jay Stevens. However, the real strength of this new history is that it delves deeply into the journal literature, and also usefully describes the fascinating uses of LSD’s precursor, ergot, in the past. Hatsis assesses a far wider range of the early researchers and experimenters than others have previously done, and places them together in their medical context.

The other valuable element of this approach is that many more individual stories emerge that have otherwise been forgotten, which weaves in a layer of intimacy. This is not only true of the researchers themselves, but also their LSD subjects, who frequently only appear as case studies in the literature, but who also have fascinating backstories. This is one of the very important points when remembering LSD’s history: thousands of deeply personal psychedelic experiences, often obscured by their reduction to category.

Hatsis also addresses some of the LSD story in Britain, particularly Ronald Sandison and Powick Hospital. Sandison being one of the forerunners of developing psycholytic therapy, placing a great emphasis on including a psychotherapeutic component, which is still a major aspect of medical approaches today. It’s also to his credit that he discusses Dr Joyce Martin who attempted to ‘treat’ homosexuals. Her story is deeply wrapped up in the changing sexual and cultural mores of Britain, which were only just beginning to undergo radical changes.

Of course, the lynchpin story of LSD is Albert Hofmann’s incredible tale of discovery. While Hatsis liberally uses the chemist’s own version, found in his book LSD: My Problem Child, and which his own title is obviously a riff on, it does borrow too much of the starry-eyed remembrance. As Mike Jay recently wrote after consulting Hofmann’s earliest notes, ‘It’s a gruelling episode that Hofmann experienced as an acute poisoning, with symptoms that were mostly physical and extremely unpleasant. Rather than a psychedelic, he and the visiting doctor compared them to a massive overdose of amphetamines.’[1]

This in itself is a fascinating change that really drives at the heart of LSD’s mythology. Furthermore, it says something else about the period, that for all the ground-breaking research, there was its dark side—most obviously the CIA’s completely unethical approach to research in MKUltra, which itself was underpinned by some delusory interpretation.

When one MKUltra LSD test subject was experiencing sheer beauty, the researcher noted that the subject had ‘experienced depression’. Hatsis rightly notes that it reinforces, ‘the fact that even the CIA’s brightest scientists, whether using the drug to manipulate or stupefy, had no real handle on the substance they desperately sought to understand’. It is incredible to think about the extent to which the agency turned people on, and very sadly rapidly off.

Aside from the CIA, two individuals come in for particular opprobrium by Hatsis: the religious scholar Robert Charles Zaehner and Timothy Leary. Zaehner, an expert in Zoroastrianism, is described as the dark as opposed Aldous Huxley’s light. He was one of Aldous Huxley’s leading critics who also took mescaline to test its mystical potential—concluding that it was not capable of producing a truly mystical state.

Zaehner’s criticism of Huxley’s vitalism and perennialism is lucidly articulated by Hatsis, however the claim that Huxley has since been proved right, and that there is a perennial mysticism is less obvious, to this reader at least. The language and belief systems that we use to describe such states are deeply contextual. Moreover, the ‘mystical experience’ carries a very specific set of cultural baggage. The problem with perennialism is that it reduces experience to a uniformity, denying the specificity of worldwide beliefs. Zaehner recognized this, and while he might also be wrong, it is a debate that remains firmly open.

While Hatsis at least affords Zaehner scholarly credibility, the same cannot be said for his treatment of Leary, who he blames for the end of the golden age. He states that after it was made illegal in 1965, ‘All the pioneering triumphs of the wonder child decade vanished.’ And, ‘his [Leary’s] ignoble use of LSD sent all research and legitimate inquiry back to the dark ages’. In support, Hatsis quotes the LSD researcher Oscar Janiger’s criticisms of him, recorded in Storming Heaven, but this is short-sighted.

Leary is indeed a divisive figure, whose personal life left a good deal of trauma in its wake, and was undoubtedly a master self-promotor. Such a master, in fact, that he still lives rent free in the minds of many critics. Janiger’s own research was shut down, not by Leary’s extravagances, but by the FDA—several years before the Harvard man had even tried LSD. It was the aforementioned new regulations that first effected Janiger, along with many other researchers from the 1950s.

The golden age died out because researchers had less free reign with drugs generally, and their studies needed to become more carefully constructed. Moreover, while Leary certainly contributed to mountains of negative publicity, drug law—especially in regard to recreational use—was globally going through a period of becoming increasingly stringent. Even if Leary had never existed, it seems unlikely that LSD would have been ignored in that wave of control. Leary provided a convenient spectacle, one that’s worth looking beneath.

In conclusion, LSD The Wonder Child is excellently written, and the author clearly has a great passion for his subject. I laughed out loud in many places, and was constantly touched by so many early stories of LSD adventure. While it does seem to be rooted in a 1980s viewpoint, the book nonetheless brings to life qualities and characters that have hitherto been sorely missed from the earlier stories. It is a book well worth reading.


[1]. Mike Jay (2018) Bicycle Day Revisited.

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