Lifestyle, Research

Pioneers of Psychedelics Research: The Harvard Psilocybin Project and More!

May 5, 2021 10:30 am ET
Pioneers of Psychedelics Research: The Harvard Psilocybin Project and More!

Note: Veriheal does not support illegally consuming alternative therapeutic substances but acknowledges that it transpires because of the current illicit status, which we strive to change by advocating for research, legal access, and responsible consumption. Always consult a physician before attempting psychedelic therapy.


Psilocybin, MDMA, LSD, DMT…These are just the common psychedelics being consumed across the globe. Whether consumed for recreational use, spiritual pursuits, artistic inclinations, or therapeutic use, research estimates that over 30 million people are consuming psychedelics in America alone. Psychedelic research has come a long way since the discovery of the various varieties, however, there are a few individuals who are considered to be the pioneers of psychedelic research, two of which went down in history for their controversial Harvard Psilocybin Project. 

What is The Harvard Psilocybin Project?

Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert joined forces in order to launch the ‘Harvard Psilocybin Project’ where the team gathered “practically anyone” to sample synthesized versions of psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, and then report on their experiences with the substances. The Harvard Psilocybin Project was a series of experiments in the field of psychology which began in 1960 but was ended in March 1962. The project came to an end after a mere two years due to concerns over legitimacy and safety from other professors at Harvard. 

An example of one of the project’s experiments is the Marsh Chapel Experiment which was run under Leary’s supervision. The experiment involved the administration of psilocybin to graduate divinity students as part of a study that aimed to see if the substance could facilitate a more profound religious experience. Another includes the Concord Prison Experiment which aimed to determine whether the substance could reduce recidivism (the tendency to relapse into criminal behavior) in inmates. 

Huston Smith’s last work called ‘Cleansing the Doors of Perception’, took to the Harvard Psilocybin Project and described it as serious, conscientious, and mature in its attempt to raise awareness of entheogenic substances. Unfortunately, many felt otherwise, including Harvard University itself as both Leary and Alpert were fired from their academic positions due to controversy surrounding this project. The Psychedelic Science Review explained that the official reason given for Leary’s firing is that “he did not live up to his teaching obligations”, while Alpert was fired on the basis that he was “giving psychedelic drugs to undergraduate students”. 

Leary and Alpert believed that psilocybin could be the solution to the emotional problems of the Western man. The duo first tested the substance on a group of 38 individuals with varying backgrounds and who were placed in soothing environments for the experiments. The duo consumed the substances themselves and gave the participants control over the individual dosage of their psilocybin intake. Of this small participant group, 75% reported pleasant trips, while 69% reportedly reached a “broadening of awareness”. The study then expanded to include 167 participants, of which, 95% had reported that psilocybin had “changed their lives for the better”. 

Timothy Leary self-proclaimed to be the “high priest” of psychedelic counterculture and has paved the way for psychedelics and for other pioneers in the industry. In light of such, let’s have a look at the pioneers of psychedelic research. 

Prominent Pioneers of Psychedelics

  • Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary received his Ph.D. in psychology from Berkeley University and began lecturing at Harvard in 1959. Shortly after his arrival at Harvard, Leary teamed up with Richard Alpert to start the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Leary may go down in history as the biggest and most infamous name in the history of psychedelics due to his rather outrageous antics which led to the end of his academic career at Harvard. According to PsyTech, it was also his outrageous antics that “ultimately clouded his important research”.  Leary first began with experimentation with magic mushrooms and then moved on to LSD which purportedly helped catapult the counterculture movement in the 1960s. Leary also contributed to bringing familiarity into the mainstream due to his loud and charismatic disposition towards psychedelics and culture with famous catchphrases such as “turn on, tune in, drop out”, and “think for yourself and question authority”. His out-there approach even landed him on the CIA watch list and was even labeled by ex-president Richard Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America”. 

  • Richard Alpert (Ram Dass)

Richard Alpert, or Ram Dass, is also a clinical psychologist like Leary who pioneered psychedelics but he has also become more well known as a spiritual leader. Alpert received his doctorate in psychology from Stanford University and then went on to work with Leary at Harvard University. Alpert and Leary moved to Mexico to continue their experiments with magic mushrooms after being fired from Harvard. During his time in Mexico, Alpert’s experience led to the decision to travel to India- where he met a guru who named him Ram Dass, meaning “servant of God”. He then spent the remainder of his life pursuing spiritual pursuits despite having a Jewish upbringing.  

  • Albert Hofmann 

Albert Hofmann is a Swiss chemist who is responsible for discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Hofmann synthesized the substanced by isolating compounds found in ergot. He graduated from the University of Zürich with his doctorate in medical chemistry. From the time of his discovery of LSD, the find was put aside for five years. Then Hofmann returned to his therapeutic research where he “accidentally absorbed a small amount of the synthesized drug, he experienced dreamlike hallucinations”. After this accident, he ingested the substances multiple times thereafter in order to assess its efficacy as a psychiatric treatment. Throughout his research, he maintained that LSD can be useful in psychiatric and spiritual contexts given that it is taken in a controlled environment and with full understanding of effects. 

  • Stainslav Grof

After the discovery of LSD by Alter Hofmann, Stainslav Grof became among the first to research the effects of LSD on the psyche (the human soul, mind, or spirit). Esalen Institute described Grof as a “psychiatrist with more than 60 years of experience researching non-ordinary states of consciousness”. Grof is also considered to be the trailblazer for LSD-assisted psychotherapy, which is when the substance is being used to “induce a mystical experience with the aim of enabling individuals to work through difficult situations”. Hofmann stated that “if I am the father of LSD, Stan is the Godfather. Nobody has contributed as much as Stan for the development of my problem child (LSD)”.

  • Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley is well known as a philosopher, poet, playwright, author, and psychedelics pioneer who recounted his experiences in multiple literature pieces- of which, The Doors of Perception is particularly well known. Huxley’s work portrayed his experiences with mescaline in a manner that seemed self-aware and clinically detached. Huxley assisted with getting people to have serious and difficult discussions but also “asked his wife” to “inject him with LSD, and a few hours later embarked on his final journey”. His experiences with mescaline led to his assurance that no “miraculous effects” would happen to work and talent. Psytech provides the example of a mediocre painter who would not wake up more talented or skilled but instead may wake up more enlightened. 

While these are just 5 of the most significant pioneers in terms of psychedelic research, there are many others who have made significant strides in providing the therapeutic potential of psychedelics. 

For more information on psychedelic therapy, check out this article

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