BOOK REVIEW: The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Dan Lattin


The best-known members of the “Club” were Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (Ram Das), Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil. This book details their excursions into mind-altering experiments at Harvard University in the 1960s.

While there were many young people who experimented with hallucinogenic drugs in the 1960s, how does one explain full professors enticing young people into mind-altering drug experiments in the name of science—at what was arguably America’s most prestigious institution of higher learning?

Yes, this is the same Harvard University that thrust upon us the RBRVS (Resource-Based Relative Value Scale), the system by which the U.S. government exercises price controls on physicians and hospitals. According to some critics, Harvard surveyed an insufficient number of cases to warrant making the faulty conclusions of RBRVS, and some findings were devoid of any empiric foundation. In my opinion, there is never any constitutional authority for the federal government to institute price controls.

Despite its flaws, Harvard was successful in selling its unscientific system to the federal government. This was a quarter of a century later, and we wouldn’t expect hallucinogenic drugs to have transgenerational, system-wide effects. Is there something about the culture at Harvard that promotes irrationality?

Laced throughout the book are references to spirituality, meditation, the divine quest, mysticism, etc., intertwined with sacred mushrooms, peyote, mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD. Add commune experiments and aberrant sexual behavior to this, and you’ve got one dysfunctional quagmire.

As Lattin describes it, Richard Alpert, following his Harvard psychedelic experiences, journeyed to India, where he encountered Guru Neem Karoli Baba, called “Maharaji.” This guru told Alpert that “LSD could be useful, but it was not true samadhi, that highest state of yogic concentration that the Bhagavad Gita describes as ‘seeing the self as abiding in all things and all things in the self.’”

Upon his return to the U.S., Alpert paraded around barefoot in his long white robe and lengthy beard. The transformation even included his name, which was changed from Richard Alpert to Ram Das. This was, however, the same man who a few years earlier had lived in San Francisco and Boston, jet-setting between the two coasts. He lived simultaneously with a male lover in San Francisco and a female partner in Boston, neither of whom was aware of the “other lover.” During the same period, he was also spending a lot of time acting as a surrogate mother to Timothy Leary’s two younger children, Susan and Jack. Susan committed suicide in 1990, and Jack became estranged from his father for a prolonged period. In the 1980s, while working with AIDS patients, Alpert (Das), a psychology researcher, finally confessed: “I was confused.”

At 35, Timothy Leary, who was also a research psychologist, lost his wife Marianne to suicide. They had an open marriage, and the mutual infidelities were apparently too much for her. Dr. Leary, four wives later, pinned the blame on another mind-altering drug—alcohol.

Timothy Leary was the architect of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, which recruited graduate students from seminaries, colleges, and universities for controlled “trips” via ingestion of psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms.” Leary had partaken of the mushrooms through a Mexican shaman, and this brought him “the deepest religious experience” of his life.

Huston Smith’s journey from China (he was the son of Methodist missionary parents) to become a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led him into the study of world religions. Indeed, his book The Religions of Man, republished as The World Religions, was a best-seller.

Smith, in his mystical search, sought out Aldous Huxley, who lived at the ruins of a failed utopian communal society in California—Llano del Rio. It should be noted that Alpert and Leary established their own commune in Newton, Mass., holding all in common—property, drugs, and each other. After that failure, a similar communal experiment was attempted in Millbrook, New York, thanks to the largesse of a wealthy heir. The Millbrook commune likewise could not endure the drugs, aberrant sexuality, and total commonality.

Huxley had experimented with mescaline, describing his psychedelic experiences in The Doors of Perception. Years later, Huston Smith published his own Cleansing the Doors of Perception. Smith and Huxley hit it off, both being interested in the mystical experiences of yoga and Buddhism, as well as those triggered by drugs.

When Huston Smith and Timothy Leary hooked up at Harvard, their interest in psychedelic trips led them to “legitimize” their interest as a research project.

Andrew Weil was not part of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, but as a student reporter for the Harvard Crimson turned out to be the one to expose it. This earned him the animosity of Leary, Alpert, and Smith. Like the others, however, Weil was very fascinated by mysticism and ethnobotany. He went on to Harvard Medical School, after which he drifted to Central and South America to study with native shamans and sorcerers, who taught him about drugs, plants, and techniques to achieve altered states of consciousness. Dr. Weil was interested in the source of healing power, and the “interconnectedness of magic, religion, and medicine.” As the others sought out Eastern mystics, Dr. Weil looked to indigenous curanderos.

Dr. Weil has written many books, attempting to bridge the gap between scientific medicine and holistic medicine, yoga, acupuncture, meditation, and other “relaxation techniques.” He prefers being called “The Wizard,” and seems to have found his own blend of magic, medicine, and religion, discarding scientific medicine and RBRVS.

Indeed, Harvard, that great center of higher learning, has delivered two formidable blows to Western medicine—”magic mushrooms” and RBRVS.

Kenneth D. Christman, M.D.
Dayton, Ohio

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