History of Medicine

The Trials of Psychedelic Medicine: LSD Psychotherapy in the United States

The focus of my AMS postdoctoral fellowship has been completing the manuscript for my book, “The Trials of Psychedelic Medicine: LSD Psychotherapy in the United States.” The book explores the rise and fall of research into the therapeutic potential of the psychedelic drug LSD in psychiatry from the 1950s until the 1970s. It argues that prohibition of the drug by the federal government in the 1960s did not terminate research—as is the common perception—but rather that research dwindled to a close later in the 1970s, primarily due to scientific challenges that arose from the need to demonstrate the efficacy of a unique from of drug-assisted psychotherapy through clinical trial methods designed for evaluating purely biological treatments, in an increasingly rigid regulatory framework of pharmaceutical research and development. Revised from my doctoral dissertation, my fellowship gave me the time to focus on completing this crucial step in the academic career pathway. At the University of Calgary I was affiliated with both a History of Medicine program in the Cumming School of Medicine, and the Calgary Institute for Humanities, providing a diverse and stimulating context for my work. The manuscript is now under peer review with a major academic press.

As well as revising the manuscript, I was able to conduct new archival research in Canada that has both contributed to the book, and which provides material for future research projects. In December of 2016 I spent time exploring the personal archives of two psychedelic researchers—Richard Yensen and Donna Dryer (who feature in my book)—at their home on Cortes Island, BC. This was an incredibly unique opportunity to not only access archival material that had not previously been made available to researchers, but also to spend time with and hear first hand stories and perspectives from researchers who participated in the history I have written about. These researchers are also involved in the current renaissance in clinical research with psychedelics, therefore I have developed new and close relationships that will help me to more deeply and effectively contribute to the growing scientific and public conversations on the medical use of these drugs. From the new archival research I have written a new epilogue to my book, which continues the narrative from 1976—the end of the last major LSD research program in the US—through efforts to revive research in the 1980s and 90s, and to the successful revival in the 2000s.

In November 2016 I was also able to travel to Saskatoon to consult the papers of pioneer of LSD therapy Abram Hoffer in the provincial archives. This research helped to fill several holes in my book’s narrative, and—along with the BC research—has provided a significant body of research from which to base future projects

As well as my research, over the year I have significantly increased my experience in presenting my work to diverse audiences, delivering papers at major conferences, public events, guest lectures, and local seminars. Connections made at one of these events has led to further opportunities for conducting postdoctoral research in Canada. Having brought me to Canada from New Zealand, my AMS fellowship has therefore not only given me time to complete my manuscript, but also provided significant and unique opportunities for research, presenting my work, and engaging with the scholarly community in Canada. This has not only greatly advanced my academic experience and improved my work, but has also led directly to further appointments. It has therefore been an extremely rewarding and important stage in my career.

About the author

Matthew Oram

Matthew will be using his AMS History of Medicine and Healthcare Postdoctoral Fellowship to complete his book “The Trials of Psychedelic Therapy: LSD Psychotherapy in the United States, 1949-1976,” at the University of Calgary. This book explores the history of research investigating the therapeutic potential of the psychedelic drug LSD in the United States, which was widespread in the 1950s…

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