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Legend of a mind: The archives of Timothy Leary

David Presti, teaching professor of neurobiology | June 23, 2011

Hooray for public libraries!  Last week the New York Public Library announced its acquisition of the personal archives of Timothy Leary (1920-1996) (1).  While many students in college today do not know who he is, Timothy Leary is without a doubt one of UC Berkeley’s most famous graduates.  He received his PhD in psychology at Cal in 1950.  The title of his dissertation, which has gone missing from the shelves of the various UCB campus libraries, but can be requested from the UC library storage warehouse and perused in-house, is The social dimensions of personality: group process and structure.  It is a sophisticated analysis of interpersonal interactions during group psychotherapy sessions.  Following his doctorate, he taught psychology at Cal and other places for several years, before moving to become director of psychological research at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in nearby Oakland, California.  During this period he wrote a classic book on the quantitative measurement and modeling of personality, a subject in which he was a pioneer.  His accomplishments got him invited to teach at Harvard University, and in 1959 he returned to his native Massachusetts to assume a teaching and research position there.  What happened thereafter has become the stuff of legend.

In 1960 Leary encountered the powerful mind-altering properties of Psilocybe mushrooms, after the shamanic use of these mushrooms was revealed to contemporary society in a Life magazine article published in 1957.  The article had been written by Gordon Wasson, a New York City bank executive and mushroom scholar, after receiving knowledge of the therapeutic use of these mushrooms from Maria Sabina, a Mazatec healer from southern Mexico.  Being a psychologist interested in the nature of the human mind, Leary was, to say the least, impressed by his encounter with what was obviously a most powerful probe of the human psyche.  He decided to focus his research in this area and began a series of projects at Harvard investigating the effects and potential therapeutic benefits of psilocybin, the primary psychoactive chemical identified from Psilocybe psychedelic mushrooms.  Psilocybin had recently been identified by Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who in 1943 discovered the powerful psychoactive effects of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide).  In those days, the use of such substances was not controlled by any laws, and LSD was already the subject of extensive and highly regarded clinical study in the nascent discipline of biological psychiatry.  Leary collaborated with others at Harvard to conduct and accomplish successful research, but the psychological complexity and turmoil precipitated by work with such powerful substances eventually led to Leary and his psychologist colleague Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) getting kicked out of the University in 1963.  Some of this era has been documented in two excellent recent books (2,3).

Unfettered by the etiquette of the Academy, Leary became a free agent and attracted a great deal of media attention with his flamboyant and provocative style.  He gave numerous public lectures promoting personal experimentation with psychedelic substances, as well as scientific and clinical research.   He developed close relationships with folks like Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, and John Lennon.  In 1968, The Moody Blues even recorded a song about him, entitled Legend of a Mind.  Arrested for possession of marijuana, he received a draconian jail sentence, appealed, had the conviction overturned, was arrested again for marijuana possession, jailed, escaped in 1970, left the country, was captured, brought back to the US, imprisoned again in 1973, and released in 1976.  President Richard Nixon, so goes the legend, is said to have referred to him as the most dangerous man in America.  A wild ride, indeed!

Timothy Leary was a visionary.  He explored ideas 50 years ago that psychological research may productively return to in the coming 50 years.  He was deeply interested in the nature of the human mind and in human behavior.  He conducted psychedelically-assisted psychotherapy with prisoners, hoping to have positive impact on their rehabilitation.  He carried out studies of psychedelic substances demonstrating that, with careful preparation and attention to set and setting, life-transforming mystical experiences may take place.  This finding has recently been replicated and extended by exquisitely designed studies conducted at Johns Hopkins Medical School (4,5), the latest installment of which just appeared a few days ago (6).  Shamans may have known such things for a very long time, but in contemporary biomedical science it helps to have demonstrations with controlled studies conducted at prestigious institutions.  Other recent work has demonstrated the therapeutic efficacy of psilocybin in relieving anxiety and improving mood in terminal cancer patients (7), and the efficacy of a very different kind of psychedelic substance, MDMA, in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (8).  These are all clinical studies of profound importance and, if the trend continues, research like this will continue to expand (9).

Psychedelics are substances of great power.  Their effects can range from terrifying to ecstatic.  They may facilitate great psychological healing, but also trigger or exacerbate psychological problems.  Various sectors of human society have utilized them, in their plant or mushroom forms, for centuries at least, and quite possibly for millennia, for their healing potential.  This potential is conferred upon them by the power they have to open the human psyche, with all the risks that may come from delving deeply into the world of the mind.  In their use by indigenous shamans, be it Mazatec mushroom ceremonies, peyote circles in North America, ayahuasca rituals in the Amazon, or iboga ceremonies in Africa, the experiences are always conducted with the utmost care, support, and ritual structure.  Certainly among the lessons learned from the contemporary exploration of these and related substances is that such great power is worthy of the very highest respect.

Opinions about Timothy Leary are often strongly polarized.  He was a brilliant and visionary psychologist, and also a trickster, a rascal, and a provocateur.  It has been popular to demonize him, in his exuberance and flamboyance, for drawing excessive attention to the use of these powerful substances, thus contributing to a situation that resulted in clinical and other scientific research being shut down by the legal restrictions placed on these substances by the end of the 1960s.  This is far too simple.  Leary, his era, and the issues with which he was involved were complex.  Although books have been written, the role of Timothy Leary in the early days of contemporary psychedelic research and his impact on society during the second half of the 20th century are far from having been fully explored.  Kudos to the New York Public Library for acquiring these archives and thus insuring they will be preserved and available to present and future scholars!


(2) Ram Dass, Ralph Metzner, & Gary Bravo, Birth of a Psychedelic Culture, Synergetic Press (2010)
(3) Don Lattin, The Harvard Psychedelic Club, Harper (2010)

Comments to “Legend of a mind: The archives of Timothy Leary

  1. Psychedelics should be examined for their original use as access to religious experience as in indiginous cultures…

  2. ….”Potential” of human experience of our Brain and nervous system is obviously bigger than most realize….

  3. Only just realized Tim was very smart – his account of his first trip is Amazing. LSD is a valuable extra tool for those seriously seeking answers into the deepest questions,,,,,

  4. Timothy Leary was a wry character with an Irish wit and considerable energy: his accomplishments in the field of psychology are well known. His quest to understand the human mind in all of its ramifications, as well as his abiding commitment to personal liberty, led him to defy convention and pursue the truth, wherever it could be found. Although he may not have solved the enduring enigma of life, he gave it his best shot.

  5. Re “the important explorations of his early career and the density of his interests and understanding of human psychology,” he understood much more than psychology and was a prophet of sorts. He has been quoted as saying “A new language is going to be a language of icons, it’s going to be graphics.” Enthusiasts of Leary and his mind-expansion outlook should be interested in, where I work toward fulfilling his words and transcribe quotes from him into graphics.

  6. I love Timothy Leary’s in-depth research into the wonderful world of psychedelics. I first learned of ayahuasca from a blog and it intrigued me. I have heard a lot since then and now I’m going into depth to see if this experience would be right for me. This is a tremendous resource and Leary is very well-versed on this subject. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Thank you for posting your excellent summary of the accomplishments of an amazing individual. It’s disappointing to see the knee-jerk, judgmental comments of a few closed minds. How do they find their way here, if they are so opposed to the topic?

    Maybe they need to listen to your “Drugs & Behavior” podcast and do a bit of research into the history of politics and substance restrictions as well – although confirmation bias is a tough nut to crack, even among those who consider themselves men of science or educational pundits. Interesting that so many of them drink alcohol, eh?

    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie
    -ADD Coach
    “It takes a village to transform a world!”

  8. My teenage years ended in the sixties. Like many people of my age, we ‘experimented’ with LSD in its various shapes & forms.

    I think I am correct in saying that all of us who took it, whatever our expectations were, we were changed by it! Some were altered irrevocably by the experience, the rest of us just got on with our lives, grew old & were thankful just to get thru it. From time to time we smile quietly to ourselves & whisper “I was there, but I don’t really remember much.”

  9. Amazing how people who claim to believe in science can babble about things like “mystical experiences”. From whence come these mystical experiences? If life began in the primordial soup of ancient oceans, exactly what are these explorers planning to connect with? Their ancestral microbes? Or do they believe that they, themselves have evolved into gods – but their inner godlike-powers can only be reached via psilocybin? If you’re going to invent a new religion, at least take the time to invent a tighter set of rules.

    As for all of the old fossil-hippies who came here to wax nostalgic… have the stones to admit that you liked being high. One of the pioneers of anesthesia liked his ether so much that he used it every chance he could get. Of course, it eventually killed him. But he enjoyed every minute of the ride. Great mind? Of course. But his work was motivated by the desire to feel funny as much as the desire to advance science.

    • To David Presti and MSN: Timothy Leary was never a hippie, as his era was the 30s, 40, 50s, born in 1920, raised in a militarized family whose father was an officer at West Point New York military academy and the U.S. Army who was a dentist.

      TL became a West Point cadet in New York in 1938 who resigned and was drafted into the U.A. Army during the second war who was a U.S. corporal from 1942 to 1944 and then became a sergeant until he was honorably discharged, when he got his masters degree at the University of Alabama in 1946. It was an assignment along with other assignments he was given throughout the years.

      He died in his late 70s from severe prostate cancer and not drugs. He was also brave about it with less fear. The psychedelic research he decided to be apart of when he was directer of personality of psychology research with a book that got him the position called The Existential Transaction, that a college finished for him in 1960.

      The psychedelic research he became director of at Harvard was when it was LEGAL, just like boose is today. He wasn’t FIRED from Harvard nor was he a Harvard professor. He was a lecturer in psychology at Harvard. He also helped design some the Personality and Behavior tests with a good military friend, F. Barron, along with 4 others.

      He also worked inside the prisons with criminals kinda like forensic, except changing the criminals minds if you ever did your research. His books in personal psychology was the multi-level assessment of personality (1946), the social dimensions of personality: group structure (1951), the multi-level measurement of the interpersonal behavior (1956), The Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality (1957), The Existential Transaction (1959)
      including the interpersonal behavior checklist test.

      He was well RECOGNIZED and he got HONORED, at the NATIONAL Convention of the American Psychological Association, for his good important contributions to psychology in 1992 an that’s a fact – so ya might not wanna critisize ppl that you really don’t know cause you never know, nor do most ppl know, much about his personal work in psychology. He was the one on one in personal psychology who was humble and sharp.

      The Key to these books is “RECOGNITION” Get the pitcher now? Think For Your Own Self and not what other ppl say. Merry Christmas and have a happy new year.

  10. I can remember some of the sixties, but I was there. “Set and setting” and “turn on, tune in, drop out” are all I can remember from Dr. Leary. As a part of the drug culture, my friends and I used pretty near every substance that could alter our conscience. Not really a university crowd, I attended a community college to avoid a real education in Vietnam.

    My first experience with LSD was overwhelming. It was a very powerful dose and pretty much melted me down. It is not a “recreational” drug. The indigenous peoples who use it do not use these kinds of drugs this way. Put the era of the sixties into context, LSD may have set some on a path to inner or outer exploration, but the events happening in that short period, war, civil rights, technology, space exploration and the beginning of environmental awareness also had life changing results.

    I remember a friend of mine who ended up in the county jail, completely psychotic from drugs. I had been there for a while. He was totally gone and ranted and raved for a few days. The jail “staff” blackened his eyes as a form of treatment. I would say he had “dropped off,” rather than “out.”

    Later on I did have a pleasant experience with psilocybin. Coffee is about all I “use” now, hardly the same as mainlining acid, which I have done along with every other kind of pill, speed and heroin.

    So those of us who turned on, tuned in, dropped out, and got locked up, hope that these drugs can be used to alleviate suffering and not build a cult of worship for Dr. Leary.

  11. The word “shameful” would be gracious description of the life of Timothy Leary. Those who are privileged enough to earn a PhD and conduct research should abide by the highest ethical standards. The fact that he encouraged the use of illegal drugs like LSD cannot be defended.

    • Why is the drug “illegal”? What are the effects of this substance? Is it possible that psychedelics can be used in a therapeutic environment to help? Have you tried them, do you know how they work?

      On the contrary to what you’re saying, Timothy Leary did not bring shame to the world of science. He had the balls to think outside the box. He did research on what most considered to be a radical project. But what if it wasn’t radical to him, and only considered to be radical by most because most don’t understand it?

      It is BECAUSE of his PhD and research abilities that I am in NO WAY SURPRISED he was the type of man to conduct this kind of research. Since when has science abided by what’s “legal” as defined by some politicians? Hell, if science followed a predetermined path of what to study, we’d still believe that the Earth is flat.

      My thesis: research into LSD and other psychedelics should not be banned, and researchers who pursue this scientifically should not be demonized.

      • Well said. As Goethe noted, “We have grown accustomed to the fact that men mock what they don’t understand.”

  12. Thank you for the Post! – I am still wondering why more rigorous investigation in this field has not been explored. I love what the Dailai Lama´s contributions in that regard, he is in constant conversation with many fields of study. Timothy Leary´s work will undoubtedly be picked up and expanded on in the near future!

  13. Thanks for this sensitively nuanced appraisal of my former colleague and dear friend Tim Leary. Your statement that “the role of Timothy Leary in the early days of contemporary psychedelic research and his impact on society during the second half of the 20th century are far from having been fully explored” is right on target.

    I think in retrospect his pioneering contributions will be recognized and appreciated, while his flamboyant and provocative style of self-presentation will be forgotten. More books about him are coming out all the time – the most recent being Peter Conners’ White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg. He was the funniest man I’ve ever known. When asked about Nixon’s judgement of him as “the most dangerous man in America” he said “It’s true. I’ve got America surrounded.”

  14. I have a film that won the “film as Art” award in 1965 at the S.F. International Film Festival. Timothy Leary speaks the introduction, and Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha composed the sound track. It was done in 16 mm (18 minutes).
    Currently it is available at the Media Center in Berkeley, since they made it available on DVD. If the archives would like a copy, I will be happy to send them a copy.

  15. Thanks for this review of early Leary history and for bringing this to our attention. Leary’s vilification at the hands of the media and his own sometimes too emboldened self proclamations obscure the important explorations of his early career and the density of his interests and understanding of human psychology. Thanks for bringing this to our attention!

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