Do You Know the History of Acid or LSD?

Four caps of acid, or LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide)

Getty Images / RapidEye

What exactly is acid? Acid, or lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), is an illegal recreational drug derived from a parasitic fungus that grows on rye, known as ergot. Acid is the most well-known hallucinogenic drug, and due to the extended effects of the drug, the experience of taking or "dropping" acid is known as a "trip" or "acid trip."

The History of LSD

The psychoactive properties of acid were discovered almost by accident by Dr. Albert Hofmann, a research chemist working for the Sandoz Company, in 1943. Dr. Hofmann had been synthesizing LSD-25, and some crystals of the substance made contact with his fingertips and were absorbed through his skin. In the middle of the afternoon, while at work, Hofmann started to feel dizzy and restless. He went home and experienced "a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination."

Hofmann decided to experiment on himself and took a small quantity of the drug. After 40 minutes, he started feeling dizzy, anxious, noticing visual distortions, the symptoms of paralysis, and the desire to laugh. An hour later, he went home by bicycle, and even though he was escorted by his laboratory assistant for safety's sake, the trip was still difficult given the effects of LSD. He requested milk from a neighbor, who appeared to be "a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask." He also experienced unpleasant feelings about himself.

Believing that lysergic acid had potential use in neurology and psychiatry, he proceeded with animal experimentation and further human studies. It was found that with both humans and animals, there seemed to be a capacity for breaking down the ego, and it appeared to show potential for people "who are bogged down in an egocentric problem cycle [who] can thereby be helped to release themselves from their fixating and isolation." LSD also released long-forgotten memories and traumas into consciousness, which could then be worked through therapeutically.

Using and Misusing LSD

LSD was used in European psychotherapy clinics in an approach called psycholytic therapy—meaning "the dissolution of tension or conflicts in the human psyche"—in which patients took lower doses of LSD over a series of sessions. After each session, the patients would rest, then have a period where they would paint or work with clay to depict the visions they saw while hallucinating. After the art session, the patients would have a therapist-led group discussion about their experiences.

Another approach, known as psychedelic therapy—meaning "mind-manifesting" or "mind-expanding"—involved patients taking a single high dose of LSD, after a period of intensive psychological preparation, to attempt to restructure and cure the patient's personality problems. LSD was also explored as a model for psychosis and as a treatment for severe pain associated with cancer.

LSD began to be used recreationally and was extremely popular during the 1960s, when it was still legal. It was promoted by Drs. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at Harvard University. Many well-meaning people encouraged the use of LSD, believing it spread love and peace and broke down antiquated and oppressive social hierarchies. But this did not prove to be the case, and by the end of the 1960s, the dangerous side of LSD was revealed. Reports of accidents, mental breakdowns, criminal acts, murders, and suicide were reported, as well as psychotic reactions to the drug, resulting in social hysteria about LSD.

Recognizing the dangers of the drug, Sandoz stopped LSD production and distribution in 1965, and psychotherapists abandoned its use in therapy.

Although LSD has waxed and waned in popularity, it has remained a staple on the illicit drug scene. It regained popularity during the Acid House movement of the 1980s, but this was greatly superseded by the rise of first ecstasy, then crystal meth.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Leuner H. Psycholytic therapy: Hallucinogenics as an aid in psychodynamically oriented psychotherapy. In: Grinspoon L, Bakalar JB, eds. Psychedelic Reflections. New York: Human Sciences Press; 1983.

  2. Collin M. Altered State, The Story of Ecstasy Culture and Acid House. London, UK: Profile Books; 2010.

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.