Music TV Art Books Fashion Interview A to Z Film Politics Calendar Gift Shop Motherlode.TV Home Page

Timothy Laery
Timothy Leary

History of Boston Rock
     History of Boston Rock & Roll - Chapter 7 - Timothy Leary Goes To Harvard


The image one conjures up when the Sixties" are mentioned is one of hippies, peace, love, the Vietnam war, Woodstock, etc. etc. And, of course, the counter culture hold hands with rock 'n roll. But to put things into a chronological perspective, the Sixties, as we think of them today, did not start until late in the decade. The Summer of Love was in 1967. The late sixties saw Syd Barrett, the Magical Mystery tour, and LSD psychedelia.

Yet, back in the fall of 1960, someone arrived in Boston who wasn't a musician at all, but who would have one of the biggest impacts on music and culture of the '60s and early 70s. Not just locally, but nationally, even worldwide.

And, appropriately for Boston, this man was a professor.


In 1955, Timothy Leary was residing in Florence, Italy, almost penniless, and working on a thesis in existential psychology. This Springfield, Massachusetts, native ran into David McClelland, the director of the Harvard Center for Personality Research, who was then on a sabbatical in Europe.

After reviewing Leary's work, which very much impressed him, McClelland told him, "You're just what we need to shake things up at Harvard."

Fresh from his first psychedelic experience with psilocybin mushrooms, taken while vacationing in Mexico, Leary and his two children (his wife had committed suicide in 1955) moved to Boston where he went to work as a professor in clinical psychology at Harvard.

Leary moved into a Newton Centre mansion.

At that time, Harvard grad students were growing thin on a diet of Freud and Skinner, and were ready for something now. Theory Leary's main concern was: How does one change human behavior?

Aztecs had used magic mushrooms for centuries, Leary found, just to do that very thing. But when the Catholic Church arrived in the New World, it banned mushrooms so effectively that some leading botanists were unaware of their existence.

Since Leary had already experimented with them, one of the first things he did at Harvard was to sketch a proposal for "systematic drug experiments at Harvard." George Litman, a grad student who had experimented with mescaline, was quickly recruited for Leary's research team.

And conveniently enough, Leary and Litman stumbled upon the fact that Sandoz Laboratory (the Swiss firm that discovered LSD while doing research on curing migraine headaches) had synthesized the active ingredients of mushrooms. Better yet, their New Jersey office would send it to qualified researchers.

"The differences between those who wanted to explore new brain terrain and those who reflectively avoided the challenge, foreshadowed the bitter cultural conflict that raged everywhere in the decade to come."

-Timothy Leary Flashbacks

Two Heads Better Than One

Aldous Huxley, author of Doors of Perception (that's where Jim Morrison got the name!) and leading advocate of psychedelic drugs, was a visiting professor at MIT during this period, Leary wrote him a letter describing what he had planned, and Huxley called back saying he was very interested in participating. Just before Thanksgiving in 1960, the pills arrived.

Harvard faculty members were already voicing concern about what was taking place. Almost every grad student in the Center had signed up to participate.

In Newton Centre, Leary and Huxley ate a handful of the pills and rapped all night.

"Timothy, you must become the cheerleader of this evolution," Huxley urged Leary. "Your major obstacle in this evolution is the Bible. You are forbidden to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge."

The Bible begins with food and drug prohibitions, in other words, and people buying this idea would fight psychedelics all the way. Leary was up for the challenge, but had no idea of its enormity. It would eventually force him out of Harvard forever.

December 1960

Leary attracted the attention of famous minds and great thinkers alike during this period. For example, shortly after his arrival at Harvard, Arthur Koestler, the European philosopher, intellectual hero of the 20th century, and author of Darkness at Noon, an expose of communism's repressive sides, popped in to see Leary and try the mushrooms. (He decided his longtime favorite, alcohol, was better because it lot you get closer to people while mushrooms took you further away, closer to yourself).

Thus, it was not surprising that Leary picked up his mail one day and opened a letter from beatnik celeb, Allen Ginsberg. The letter stated that Ginsberg had heard about the experiments from Now York psychiatrists and wanted to participate as well. He arrived a few days later with Peter Orlovsky, his long time lover. Leary picked them up at a train station and drove back to the Newton Centre mansion. They spoke of Ayahuasa, a visionary vine of the Peruvian jungles, and of William Burroughs' studies with Peruvian medicine men. Together they devised the Grand Plan to introduce America to psychedelia. They would first initiate and train Influential Americans in consciousness expansion; no problem they thought, since such people were flocking to Leary anyway to see what he was up to, and then these Americans would generate a mass movement towards psychedelic drug use.

Bruce Cook sums up the session more cynically in his book, The Beat Generation:
"As for the session itself (between Ginsberg and Leary), there is a long and complete account of it in Leary's book, High Priest. It reads like a chapter In the great comic psychedelic novel that he may, after all someday come to write - we see Ginsberg capering naked through the halls of Leary's home, then running to the telephone to call Jack Kerouac and tell him about this great experience he is having. The action ends in the kitchen. Ginsberg, now back to earth, puts his mind to what he can do to promote the psychedelic experience to the media.

"He goes through the address book he always carries with him and considers his list of friends and contacts, promising to turn them all on, Leary was delighted. He concluded that shouting it from the housetops the way this Zen master politician urged him to might, after all, be the best course: 'Allen Ginsberg came to Harvard and shook us loose from our academic fears and strengthened our courage and faith in the process.' "

Cassady & The Sundance Kid

Around the same time, Jack Kerouac's (On the Road) sidekick, the Ambassador of Bohemia' Neal Cassady, showed up at the Harvard Research Center and exhibited an attitude toward drugs that Leary would come up against time and time again. An attitude that would, in its own way, obstruct the more idealistic goals he had in mind; goals of introducing drugs to improve people's lives, rather than anesthetize them.

"I have heard of you from coast to coast and what you are doing for the cosmological illumination of America," he told Leary. So far so good. But then he made the mistake of telling Leary he wanted to "gobble down some drugs." To which Leary replied: "You have the wrong impression of what is occurring here."

Winter 1960-61

By March of 1961, Leary's research team had studied over 200 subjects, and his conclusions were that the responses were positive, stimulating and thought provoking. 85% of the subjects reported that the experiments were the most educational experience of their lives. As scientists, the research team felt dissatisfied, however, because they felt they had not yet found a way to scientifically demonstrate the successes of the experiments. How do you demonstrate that a person's mental capacity has actually been expanded by a psychedelic experience, in measurable ways?

March 1961

Leary found one way to do this in his next experiment. He and his team were called in to do research on Concord State prisoners after it was found out that 70% of those in prisons, when freed, committed crimes again and returned to them. The State wanted to find a way to combat this recidivism.

Leary's approach to this was to introduce convicts to psychedelic drugs by sitting down and turning on with them, then measuring personality test changes. He relates his experience with the convicts.

"The bowl of pills center of the table. To establish trust, I was the first to ingest. After a half hour, the effect started coming on: the loosening of thought, the humming pressure in my head, the sharp, brilliant and then brutal intensification of the senses. I felt terrible.

What a place to be - locked in a penitentiary, out of light, out of mind. I turned my brain towards the man next to me... (A bank robber from Worcester) - I could see him much too clearly, every pore in his face, every blemish, the hairs in his nose, the horrid green-yellow enamel of his decaying teeth, the glistening of his frightened eyes.

'How ya doing, John?' I asked with a weak grin.

'I feel fine,' he answered, but I didn't believe him.

'How YOU doing, Doc?'

I was about to reply in a reassuring professional tone, but I couldn't. It's hard to lie when you're in the power of mushrooms. 'I feet lousy... I'm afraid of you (The bank robber began to laugh)

Well that's funny Doc... I'm afraid of you.'


'Why are you afraid of me?'

'Because you're a criminal. Why are you afraid of me?'

'Because you're a fucking mad scientist.' "

Leary and convict friend proceed to then break down their defenses and make connections that were heretofore impossible.

News of the first sessions spreads like wildfire through the prison and Leary has no has no problem getting volunteers. Over the next year, personality tests show that the prisoners are less hostile, less anti-social, and that 90% of the ones released remained out of prison, according to the study. At this point, however, the government began to curtail experiments drugs, forcing prisons to drop their experiments.

September 1961

Leary's next disappointment came from William Burroughs, another cult hero of the Beat Movement and author of Naked Lunch, a classic, who also pioneered drug experimentation. Burroughs paid the Center a visit, but was disappointed with Leary, feeling that he had not been scientific enough in his research. Cook, though, reported that Burroughs was also afraid to try the drugs, having just kicked heroin and having just recovered from some bad drug-related experiences.

Spring 1962

Highlights of this period:

  • Timothy Leary was approached by Walter Clark, a 62 year old professor at the Andover Newton Seminary and Walter Pahnke, a Harvard Divinity School professor who expressed interest in having students on mushrooms come to chapel on Good Friday to see if they would see visions of God there. Time magazine reports the event favorably.

  • Michael Hollingshead, a British professor, while studying the artistry of spiders on LSD weaving webs, accidentally licks the batter given to the spiders. He ingests one of the highest dosages on record, probably a hundred times more than anyone in the recorded history of pharmacology. Hollingshead and a fellow researcher become mystics on the spot, bag the spider experiments, and embark on a crusade to psychedelicize the world.

    Of course, Hollingshead comes to visit Leary and becomes a project consultant at Harvard. He gives Leary LSD to try. Leary describes his first experiment with LSD in Flashbacks, his autobiography:

    "It took about a halt hour to hit. And it came suddenly and irresistibly. Tumbling and spinning down soft fibrous avenues of light that were emitted from some central point. Merged with its pulsing ray, I could look out and see the entire cosmic drama. Past and future. All forms, all structures, all organisms, all events, were televisions productions pulsing out from the central eye. Everything that I had never experienced and read about was bubble-dancing before me like a nineteenth-century vaudeville show. My illusions, the cosmic costumes, the strange ever-changing stage props of trees and bodies and theater acts."

    "After several billion years I found myself on my feet moving through the puppet show of reality."

    It made psilocybin seem pale in comparison.

  • Simultaneously, a major resistance among Center faculty members to Leary's research began to mount. Faculty members were not happy with Leary or anything he was doing.

    And admittedly, Leary was not always a pinnacle of responsibility. For example, while at Harvard, he rented the home of a Soviet law specialist, Prof. Harold Berman, who was going on sabbatical for a year. When Berman returned, he found Leary absent, numerous people living there, and his house totally in shambles. For example, someone had taken his accordion out of storage and thrown it out an upper story window into the garden, where it lay smashed to bits.

    Although he offered to pay for some of the damage, Leary refused to accept responsibility during a series of correspondences on the matter. Berman had to hire people to work an entire summer just to clean up the wreckage.

    The Harvard faculty called a meeting during which grievances were to be aired.

    Professor Herbert Kelman was instrumental in the events that followed. He was extremely upset about the grad students flocking to Leary's research program and neglecting the less interesting ones. Kelman felt that the program was, in turn , destroying the unity of the Research Center.

    Professor Brendan Maher followed up Kelman's grievances by quoting psychiatric journals that stated that LSD and psilocybin should only be administered by physicians in medical settings. At last, the meeting really began to heat up when Maher attacked Leary's refusal to heed the dominant literature in his field.

    "Have you bothered to read the literature in your own field? ... Then how can you continue administering these drugs in a mental hospital?"

    "I don't believe those results," Leary said.

    "They are impressionistic, subjective judgments by psychiatrists who don't understand set and setting, who substitute the mystique of an M.D. for experimental methodology. Who don't prepare their subjects. Who use no objective methods, not even patient reports to evaluate what happens. In light of our own results, do you really expect us to believe this psychiatric gossip? . . I take anything said by a (recognized authoritative) psychiatrist with a grain of salt."

    After this interchange, Leary's co-worker, Richard Alpert arose and gave an impassioned defense of the research, They had decided to retrain from bringing in other academics with clout to defend them. Al the end of the day, a committee was formed to explore the grievances.

    Much to Leary's amazement, the Harvard Crimson next day printed lurid accounts of the meeting - Drug Profs Attacked by Colleagues and that sort of thing. Boston papers soon picked up the story. And although there were no specific charges of wrongdoing, the sensationalism of the stories tainted the reputation of the entire project, the beginning of the end for Leary at Harvard. He found out that although he was not notified about this, reporters friendly to Kelman and Maher, and hostile to Leary had been invited to the meeting.

    The press coverage attracted the attention of the Massachusetts State Narcotics Bureau. Their representative met with Leary a couple of times before alerting him to the reasons his project was under attack: the CIA was spending millions of dollars to research the use of psychedelics for chemical warfare, espionage, brainwashing, and didn't want information about these drugs leaking out. Nor did they want to lose control of their research and allow others to study psychedelics and gain access to them.

    How can we evaluate these accounts and their validity? There were other sides to Leary's work and his beliefs. Bruce Cook describes some of these in his book, The Beat Generation:

    "He did, it is true, go to rather giddy extremes in promoting drug taking as a cult, coming on, as he did, as a kind of pill priest whose half-baked religious ideas and vocabulary were borrowed from the Roman Catholicism into which he had been born. He became so enthusiastic about psychedelics, LSD in particular, that he began recommending them almost indiscriminately, refusing to concede even the possibility of ill effects.

    "But, (in his behalf) first and most obvious, he is sincere. He believes quite honestly, in the general efficacy of the psychedelic drugs ... as a means to direct religious experience; and he is also probably convinced personally that reports of recurring psychosis and genetic damage from LSD have been greatly exaggerated."

    Winter 1963

  • Leary's Newton Centre neighbors filed suit for zoning violations he had committed by allowing 12 people to live in his house.

  • Leary was asked to stop down from his Harvard position.

  • Leary left for Mexico to open a research center.

    Regardless of whether Leary's theories were good or bad, regardless of the quality of his research, and regardless of whether or not he was a genius, just flaky, or both, one fact remains: his introduction of psychedelics to society changed the course of our cultural history and affected every corner of existence, from music to politics to crime to philosophy. In future articles, we will specifically chronicle the impact of psychedelics on Boston's music scene, including the ill-fated Bosstown Sound movement.

    This article originally appeared in The Beat on 04/26/1985
    (c) Charles William White III

  • The Motherlode Directory From A to Z Motherlode Music Motherlode Art Motherlode Books Motherlode Politics Motherlode Politics
    Motherlode Films  Motherlode Fashions Motherlode Interview ../Motherlode Television 

    Searching For The Motherlode
    (c) 2016 Motherlode.TV