The Harvard Psychedelic Club (2010) tells the remarkable story of four individuals, Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil. Each of these men crossed paths at Harvard University in the early 1960s, where experiments were ongoing involving the consciousness-expanding effects of psychedelic substances. Each went on to explore different paths during the counterculture movement that followed.
Introduction: An entertaining story at the heart of consciousness and counterculture.
As America entered the 1960s, societal values were shifting. Young adults were growing tired of the conformity of the 1950s and the paranoia of the Cold War. New, more modern values were creeping in. Optimism, experimentation, innovation were becoming the guiding principles of the next generation.
At Harvard University, a group of professors and students embraced these values wholeheartedly as they set out to test the unknown effects of mind-altering substances like psilocybin and LSD. The group was led by two professors, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, who were joined by Huston Smith, a religion studies professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. On the outside was a Harvard undergrad, Andrew Weil, who had ambitions of his own.
This is the story of how they met, and the very different impacts they had on the topic of spiritual enlightenment and consciousness expansion.
A Meeting of the Minds at Harvard University
In some ways Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were alike. They were both born in Massachusetts, and they both earned doctorates in psychology that led them to becoming Harvard University professors. But in other, very crucial ways, they were also quite different.
Alpert was a sexually conflicted young man from an upper class Jewish background. His father wanted him to be a doctor, but Alpert was always drawn to psychology. While he struggled academically for a while, he eventually pulled himself together and got accepted into a doctorate program at Stanford University. This was around 1958, and given the university’s close proximity to San Francisco, Alpert was introduced to the nascent counterculture scene and its drug of choice at the time, marijuana.
Not long afterward, Alpert got a job working at a new program at Harvard University called the Center for Personality Research – part of the school’s Department of Social Relations. The man who got Alpert that job, David McClelland, was also the man who brought Timothy Leary to Harvard.
Leary was born into a chaotic, alcoholic family. After being accepted into the West Point military academy, his own drinking nearly got him kicked out. He managed to get an honorable discharge from the Army before he immersed himself in the field of psychology, eventually earning a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley in 1950.
For a while, Leary settled into a job at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, California and produced a well-respected book in 1957 called The Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality. Leary’s star was on the rise, but at the same time his personal life was in tatters.
His first wife committed suicide in 1955 and, after publishing his book, he took his kids to Europe in 1958. They ended up in Florence, but Leary was on the verge of becoming penniless when, in a stroke of luck, he was introduced to David McClelland, who just happened to be vacationing in Italy at the time. McClelland had read Leary’s book and thought he would be a fantastic addition to the team at Harvard’s Center for Personality Research.
This is how, in the fall of 1959, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert came to be colleagues at Harvard, working out of a drafty old mansion in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
However, before Leary had left Italy, an old friend from UC Berkeley had stopped by and told him about an amazing experience he had after taking “magic mushrooms” in Mexico. Leary was skeptical, but in the summer of 1960, he traveled to Mexico to find out for himself.
Sure enough, his friend wasn’t exaggerating. After taking the mushrooms, Leary went on an expansive journey. Around him were undulating, swirling plants, bejeweled caverns, temples and flaming emeralds. It was life-changing. He came back to Harvard and immediately pushed for McClellan to start up a new research project on the potential for these mushrooms – or, more precisely, the active ingredient: psilocybin.
A few months afterward, Alpert had his first trip, and he too was amazed by the existential experience. He saw different versions of himself made manifest before him. There was also a moment where he left his body, looked down on himself sitting on the couch, and felt some serious existential panic. But then, the fear turned to compassion and joy, and he felt, for the first time, as though he knew his true soul. He finally understood who he was. Alpert then ran out of Leary’s house and danced blissfully in the snow.
It was the winter of 1960 when Alpert had this initial experience. By that time, Leary had already brought in some others, including the poet Allen Ginsberg, his friend, the writer William S. Burroughs, and the jazz musician Maynard Ferguson.
But there was one other important figure on board in those early days: Huston Smith, a professor from the neighboring college, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Smith was on his own unique journey as well. He was born in China to parents who were Methodist missionaries. But despite his strict religious upbringing he had an insatiably curious mind. In the 1950s, he became one of the pioneering figures in the field of comparative religion. His 1958 book The World’s Religions quickly became a fundamental text for courses on religious studies. He even hosted a series of popular television shows in the mid-to-late 50s.
Smith was also friends with Aldous Huxley, a popular British writer and philosopher whose research on theology and mysticism was a big influence on Smith. In 1954, Huxley would publish The Doors of Perception, a book that chronicled his own experiments with the psychedelic drug mescaline, and which served as a touchstone for just about everyone involved in the Harvard experiments.
Smith told Huxley about his interest in having the kind of drug-induced spiritual experience that the author had written about. Huxley told Smith that he should get in touch with Leary. After all, he was working right down the street from MIT.
Smith did just that. And when he took the psilocybin pill, he found the kind of awe-inspiring, enlightening experience he was looking for. So he quickly signed up to become a third leader in the project over the next few years.
For now, Smith, Leary and Alpert were more or less on the same page when it came to their views on how these drugs could potentially benefit society – in the realm of psychology, spirituality, or both. But as we’ll see in the next sections, these views would soon diverge.
Professors No More
In 1960, Leary and Alpert’s psilocybin project was given the go-ahead by Harvard administration. All research subjects who took the drug were expected to write a two- or three-page detailed report describing their experience. There was an important stipulation however: undergraduate students could not be used as test subjects.
This caveat would essentially lead to Leary and Alpert’s downfall. And it would be due in large part to the actions of one jealous undergrad named Andrew Weil.
Like Smith, Weil had also traveled around the world, experienced different cultures, and was deeply influenced by the writing of Aldous Huxley. When he arrived as an undergrad at Harvard in 1960, he asked his sociology professor about the possibility of writing a paper about American society’s attitudes towards mind-altering drugs. The professor steered Weil towards the school’s Center for Personality Research.
Weil visited the Center with his friend, Ronnie Winston, and they asked Leary about the possibility of becoming subjects for the research program. Both of them were quickly informed that no undergrads were allowed. Weil also tried to approach Alpert on a different occasion but was given the same answer: sorry, but no.
Weil was determined, however. So, he and Winston went ahead and launched their own research project. Using some Harvard stationary, Weil was able to get a drug manufacturer to supply him with doses of mescaline. Soon, Weil and Winston were operating their own undergraduate version of Leary and Alpert’s research program.
But then, as time went on, Weil noticed how his friend Winston had been granted access into Richard Alpert’s social circle. Outside of school settings, the two had begun to hang out. Alpert even took Winston for a ride in his private plane. Perhaps worst of all, as a token of his friendship, Alpert had given Winston some psilocybin. Weil felt hurt and betrayed.
In 1963, Weil’s jealousy finally got the better of him. While researching an article for the Harvard Crimson about the program, Weil accused Alpert of giving drugs to undergrad students. Weil’s witness to corroborate this allegation? His old friend Ronnie Winston. Even though Winston told the university dean that taking the drug was the most educational experience he had at the school, both Alpert and Leary ended up being fired.
To be fair, in the years that followed, Weil did feel guilty about what he’d done. But Alpert never forgave him.
Oddly enough though, taking Leary and Alpert out of the confines of Harvard didn’t exactly hurt their careers. In fact, it was going to make them more famous than ever.
Going their Separate Ways
Officially, only Richard Alpert was fired over the “drug scandal” at Harvard. Timothy Leary was fired for “leaving Cambridge and his classes without permission.” In some ways Leary had already moved on. By the summer of 1963 he was back in Mexico and shifting his attention to LSD.
LSD had actually been discovered back in April 1944, at Sandoz Labs in Switzerland. It took some time before LSD became more well known in the States, even though the CIA funded research on LSD at Harvard University in the 1950s. It wasn’t until 1961 that Leary took his first dose. And given how little it takes to produce a powerful effect (it’s two to three thousand times stronger than mescaline), LSD became the drug of choice when Leary and Alpert decided to continue their experiments after leaving Harvard in 1963.
Fortunately, the two former professors never had a shortage of friends like Peggy Hitchcock, who was an heiress to the Gulf Oil fortune. With Hitchcock’s help, Leary and Alpert were able to relocate to Millbrook, in upstate New York, where an old mansion provided an ideal location for what would become a psychedelic compound, packed full of friends, associates, and hangers-on. But this would be where Leary and Alpert would part ways.
Alpert was finding diminishing returns in his experiments with LSD. After pushing the boundaries he discovered that one’s tolerance could simply go up. Maybe there was a limit. Maybe taking more didn’t expand your mind any further. In fact, after Alpert and a group of friends took megadoses of LSD every four hours for two weeks, the group just turned bitter and angry toward one another.
Indeed, Leary was turning on Alpert – taking issue with his homosexuality, and accusing him of trying to seduce his teenage son. Alpert was hurt. He knew he was a better parent to Leary’s children than Leary was himself. The two former professors ended up parting ways in 1965.
Over the next few years, Leary only became more vocal in his proselytizing for the general use of LSD, and he gained a lot of media attention in the process. He made headlines when he famously told a generation to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Meanwhile, Alpert went on his own speaking tour and advised a more temperate and responsible approach.
As for Huston Smith, after leaving the Harvard project he worked on a paper called “The Religious Significance of Artificially Induced Religious Experience.” He delivered this paper at a 1966 academic conference in Marin County, California – located just across the bay from San Francisco. When Smith arrived, he was shocked to see what was the beginning of the hippy movement. The so-called Summer of Love was just around the corner. At the time, LSD was still legal, but a negative public perception was already taking hold in the mainstream. The drug was considered a dangerous threat to society and in a matter of months it would be outlawed in California, with the federal ban happening two years after that.
But at the conference, The Grateful Dead played, and LSD was being handed out like free candy. Still, Smith was there to tell the crowd what he learned: that drugs like LSD could indeed lead to feelings of euphoria and spiritual bliss. But there was little evidence that these sensations would last once the drug wore off.
In a way, Smith’s findings were close to Alpert’s. Richard was feeling burned out and ready to look elsewhere for more lasting enlightenment. So, in 1967, he traveled to India and had a chance encounter with a guru known as Maharaji. It was another life changing experience for Alpert, but this time it would be a name-changing experience as well. Alpert stayed with the Maharaji for eight months and returned to the US as Ram Dass, a name that translates to “servant of God.”
In his new incarnation, Ram Dass would become a guru himself. In 1971 he published a bestselling book called Be Here Now and it led to millions of Americans gaining an interest in yoga and Eastern spirituality.
Andrew Weil also had a major impact on American minds. After getting his degree from Harvard Medical School, Weil floundered for a while before gravitating back toward his first love: botany. He traveled, explored, spoke with healers from other cultures, and proceeded to write a series of holistic health books, many of which became bestsellers.
By the 1990s, Dr. Weil was a national brand. Books like Spontaneous Healing gained him the attention of Oprah and other media spotlights. Eventually, Weil established an online empire of vitamins, organic face cleansers, nut bars, juicers and even frying pans.
As for Timothy Leary, in 1968 he was arrested for possession of marijuana and sentenced to jail time at minimum security prison. Leary escaped, got a fake passport under the new name of “William McNellis.” He then flew to Algeria, where he spent some time with the Black Panthers, before moving on to the neutral zone of Switzerland.
Things in Switzerland were anything but idyllic. Leary had little money and was being pressured to write his memoirs. At the same time, The Rolling Stones were recording their album Exile on Main St. in Switzerland, and Leary fell into a debilitating heroin habit while hanging out with the musicians. This, in addition to his steady diet of LSD, cocaine, Quaaludes and marijuana.
While the Swiss government wouldn’t extradite Leary to the States, they didn’t want him to stay, either. So the wanted man was forced to travel to other countries, resulting in his getting kidnapped by US authorities in Afghanistan. Despite his prodigious drug intake, Leary still scored a genius level on his IQ test when he was brought to trial in 1973. But he lost a lot of friends when he decided to become an FBI informant in order to avoid more serious jail time.
He officially joined the Federal Witness Protection Program in 1976. Years later, he would emerge now and then to try and rekindle some of his former notoriety, even joining Ram Dass on stage for some speaking engagements in the eighties. In 1995, he was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, and he passed away the following year.
In 1964, Leary and Alpert co-authored a book called The Psychedelic Experience, which laid some of the ground rules for taking psychedelic drugs, such as finding a peaceful environment, and only having trusted friends around. As Aldous Huxley wrote back in 1954, these drugs can show you either heaven or hell. They can bring out your best or your worst. Each member of the Harvard experiments found this out in their own way. Psychedelics didn’t provide a simple answer or a shortcut to enlightenment, but they did reveal a whole new life-affirming and life-changing reality that none of them would ever forget.
Four unique individuals were brought together at Harvard University at the start of the 1960s. While they were united in their shared interest in the consciousness-expanding potential of psychedelic drugs, they each went their own way after their research at Harvard was abruptly ended. Timothy Leary became an outspoken advocate for the broad use of LSD. Richard Alpert became Ram Dass and turned millions on to Eastern spiritualism. Huston Smith became convinced that psychedelic drugs could only have a fleeting spiritual effect on people. And Andrew Weill went on to become a popular holistic health guru.
About the author
Don Lattin is one of the nation’s leading journalists covering alternative and mainstream religious movements and figures in America. His work has appeared in dozens of U.S. magazines and newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle, where he covered the religion beat for nearly two decades. Lattin has also worked as a consultant and commentator for Dateline, Primetime, Good Morning America, Nightline, Anderson Cooper 360, and PBS’s Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. He is the author of Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge, and Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today, and is the coauthor of Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium.
History, Philosophy, Society, Culture, Nonfiction, Psychology, Biography, Spirituality, Science, American History, Cultural, Counter Culture, 20th Century American History, Individual Psychologists, North American Sociology, Ram Dass, Religion, Social Scientists, Sociology, United States Studies
It is impossible to overstate the cultural significance of the four men described in Don Lattin’s The Harvard Psychedelic Club. Huston Smith, tirelessly working to promote cross-cultural religious and spiritual tolerance. Richard Alpert, a.k.a. Ram Dass, inspiring generations with his mantra, “be here now.” Andrew Weil, undisputed leader of the holistic medicine revolution. And, of course, Timothy Leary, the charismatic, rebellious counter-culture icon and LSD guru. Journalist Don Lattin provides the funny, moving inside story of the “Cambridge Quartet,” who crossed paths with the infamous Harvard Psilocybin Project in the early 60’s, and went on to pioneer the Mind/Body/Spirit movement that would popularize yoga, vegetarianism, and Eastern mysticism in the Western world.
This book is the story of how three brilliant scholars and one ambitious freshman crossed paths in the early sixties at a Harvard-sponsored psychedelic-drug research project, transforming their lives and American culture and launching the mind/body/spirit movement that inspired the explosion of yoga classes, organic produce, and alternative medicine.
The four men came together in a time of upheaval and experimentation, and their exploration of an expanded consciousness set the stage for the social, spiritual, sexual, and psychological revolution of the 1960s. Timothy Leary would be the rebellious trickster, the premier proponent of the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of LSD, advising a generation to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Richard Alpert would be the seeker, traveling to India and returning to America as Ram Dass, reborn as a spiritual leader with his “Be Here Now” mantra, inspiring a restless army of spiritual pilgrims. Huston Smith would be the teacher, practicing every world religion, introducing the Dalai Lama to the West, and educating generations of Americans to adopt a more tolerant, inclusive attitude toward other cultures’ beliefs. And young Andrew Weil would be the healer, becoming the undisputed leader of alternative medicine, devoting his life to the holistic reformation of the American health care system.
It was meant to be a time of joy, of peace, and of love, but behind the scenes lurked backstabbing, jealousy, and outright betrayal. In spite of their personal conflicts, the members of the Harvard Psychedelic Club would forever change the way Americans view religion and practice medicine, and the very way we look at body and soul.
“[Don Lattin] has created a stimulating and thoroughly engrossing read.” —Dennis McNally, author of A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, and Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America
“[An] unexpectedly grounded story…makes sense of a complicated movement so often reduced to its parody-ready costumes, haircuts, and groovy lingo. And [Lattin] does it with authority and an evenhanded understanding of the good, the bad, and the crazy of it.” — The New York Times Book Review
Many of the stories in this book have been told elsewhere, but Lattin tells them with new energy and weaves them together to create a satisfying narrative that re-creates and explains the era. — San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
In this beautifully constructed study, Lattin brings together four of the most memorable figures from that period…this is a fast-moving, dispassionate recounting of a seminal period in our history, and all in all, a wonderful book. — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A terrific social history of a fascinating historical period . . . laugh-aloud passages make this an entertaining read. — Booklist (starred review)
With care and considerable humor, Don Lattin shows us how the interwoven relationships of four charismatic visionaries contributed to the expansion of mind that changed American culture forever. The way we eat, pray, and love have all been conditioned by their lives and teachings. — Mirabai Bush, co-founder and Senior Fellow of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, co-author (with Ram Dass) of Compassion in Action
I suspect I’m not the only person who thought the psychedelics-at-Harvard story had been pretty well settled, but Lattin’s work has widened my perspective considerably. By focusing on Huston Smith and Andrew Weil as well as Leary and Alpert, he’s created a stimulating and thoroughly engrossing read. — Dennis McNally, author of A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead, and Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America
The Harvard Psychedelic Club is not only a great read, it’s also an unforgettable head trip. Lattin weaves a masterful tale of 1960s-style spirituality, professional jealousy, and out-of-body experiences. Lattin has done his homework and it shows. Read this book and expand your mind. No hallucinogenics required. — Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss
A revealing account of four iconic personalities who helped define an era, sowed seeds of consciousness, and left indelible marks in the lives of spiritual explorers to this day. The Conclusion is alone worth the price of the book. — Dan Millman, author of The Peaceful Warrior
“Lattin succeeds where less accomplished chroniclers of this period have failed.” — San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times
“A rousing tale of jealousy, drugs, betrayal, vengeance, careerism and academic intrigue with a Harvard accent-it also carries the moral that brains alone won’t make you holy.” — Shelf Awareness
“Outstanding book.” — Cleveland Plain-Dealer
“A fast, funny, and savvy book that dishes about some of the most celebrated figures in the American counterculture.” — Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
“The Harvard Psychedelic Club’s intimate, revealing vista makes the book soar, and, as Lattin hopes, just might inspire today’s idealists to carve a new path and profoundly change the world as these four dynamic visionaries once did.” — Miami Herald
“Lattin’s snappy conversational prose and poignant insights into his subjects’ often-tortured personal lives make his book worth the trip.” — Washington City Paper
“…raucous, witty and licentious… [Lattin] has created a post-Kerouac road scholar classic.” — The Edge
“With equal parts keen historicity and great humor, Lattin… chronicles how these founding fathers of the so-called New Age movement in the U.S. and worldwide met at Harvard in the early 60s and – despite rivalries, infighting and backstabbing – managed to change the spiritual landscape for generations to come.” — Chicago Sun-Times
“Lattin weaves the biographies of these brilliant men into a compelling tale of possibilities and disappointments, angels and demons, triumph and tragedy… a page-turner that can stand proudly alongside its fictional counterparts.” — Northern Dutchess News
“Don Lattin tells the story with panache…[he is] fascinated by these men, but he’s also a fierce judge of their trespasses and their lapses from authenticity. (So we’re glad to have him tell the story.)” — The Los Angeles Times
“Informative and entertaining” — HistoryWire.Com
“Lattin… deftly captures the intoxicated spirit of the 1960s zeitgeist… [The Harvard Psychedelic Club is] a fresh, expertly written text that serves to remind Leary’s generation of their past while providing a new generation with some context of where today’s pervasive drug culture came from.” — The Daily Californian
“The Harvard Psychedelic Club, takes a lucid look at four founding fathers of a movement that changed the world.” — East Bay Express
“[T]horoughly engaging… Packing his book with strange, wonderful scenes, Lattin argues that America would never be the same because of an unlikely quartet that did time ― and drugs ― at Harvard in the early 1960s.” — New York Post
“[A] colorful tale.” — Boston Globe
“Lattin’s new book The Harvard Psychedelic Club takes a lucid look at four founding fathers of a movement that changed America and thus the world.” — PsychologyToday.com
“Lattin artfully weaves [the stories] together,creating a stronger, more compelling narrative that enlightens as much as it informs. …Mind-blowing.” — Religion News Service
“The Harvard Psychedelic Club sets the record straight: Four extraordinary personalities crossed paths, and the result was electrifying.” — Portland Oregonian
“…[T]hese stories provide the psychedelic movement with context and continued relevance-important elements for a generation of readers trained to laugh at stock hippie characters and stoner epiphanies.” — The Onion
“Don Lattin, one of America’s most-respected religion newswriters in recent years, has been devoting his considerable skills to unearthing and fully reporting some of these milestone stories. This Harvard book is his latest revelation.” — ReadtheSpirit.com
“Don Lattin’s recent Harvard Pychedelic Club is a wryly tumultuous history… [that] focuses sharply on the group that began in Cambridge.” — The Huffington Post
“Lattin satisfyingly places the parallel and interconnected lives of these four titans along a timeline, drawing in a cast of minor characters as fascinating as its stars.” — BookReporter.com
“In ‘The Harvard Psychedelic Club’ Lattin adds depth, breadth and surprises to the story. Searchers, thinkers, philosophers and occasional wackos fill the pages of this entertaining book with their quests and questionable behavior. The book is a fast, often delightful read… This is a good one.” — San Mateo County Times