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Timothy Leary


Timothy Leary (1920-1996) is one of the 20th century’s most famous psychonauts. In the 1960’s, Europeans and Americans first encountered natural psychedelics, such as mushrooms and cacti. A great number of impressive books and articles was written about their experiences with these substances. Timothy Leary was one of these pioneers, researchers and writers. Among others, we have Leary to thank for spreading the knowledge about this subject and starting the psychedelic revolution.  

Leary, however, was also a well-respected psychologist. As a result of his own experiences, he later became a proponent of the use of psychedelics in a therapeutic setting. Not everyone was equally enthusiastic about these ideas. Some people thought of him as a hero, while others regarded him as a criminal. Unfortunately, the authorities belonged to the latter group. This resulted in Leary having to spend several years of his life in prison. In this article, we will discuss Leary’s life, his philosophy and some other remarkable things he did.

Leary’s life before the drug experiments

Leary was born in Springfield, Massachusets. His parents split up when he was fourteen years old. After high school, he studied at ‘College of the Holy Cross’ in Worcester for two years. This was a very strict Jesuit Institute. Under his father’s pressure, he changed schools and went to the ‘United States Military Academy’ in New York. Leary did not fare well in the strict hierarchy of this institute, and left after less than one year. This time, he did not do what his family wanted him to do, and decided to enrol at the University of Alabama. Soon, he became one of the best students, and in 1943, he obtained his bachelor’s degree in psychology. 

Then, Leary was called to serve in the army. Because of his high intellect, he did not have to go to war, but was stationed at a base in New York. He partook in a special program that would give soldiers with special talents a university level education. He studied for two months in Georgetown and for six months in Ohio. Leary received several honours for his work as a researcher for the American army.

In 1945, Leary married his first wife. One year later, he left the army. He finished his psychology studies from home and obtained his master’s degree in psychology at the Washington State University. He and his wife had a daughter. Two years later, their son was born. In the meantime, he did a promotional research at ‘Washington State University’. Leary received his doctoral degree in 1950. Tragically, his wife fell into severe depression and started drinking heavily. In 1955 she committed suicide. Of course, Leary felt devastated. He described himself during this period as "an anonymous institutional employee who drove to work each morning in a long line of commuter cars and drove home each night and drank martinis ... like several million middle-class, liberal, intellectual robots”.

Until 1955 he was an assistant professor at Berkely. In 1957 his first book, called “The Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality” was published. The ‘Annual review of psychology’ awarded this as the best psychology book of the year. In this book, he described a number of psychologic tests, developed by himself, including the commonly used Leary’s Rose.  This is a test to get an insight into group dynamics, making it easier to determine what type of behaviour is the most effective in certain groups. Leary was, without a doubt, a great, well-respected psychologist. 

Leary’s first psychedelic experiences

On May 13th, 1957, an article was published in ‘Life Magazine’. Written by R. Gordon Wasson, this article had the title “Seeking the magic mushroom”. It described the psychedelic experience Wasson had when partaking in a Mazatec mushroom ceremony in Mexico. This was the first publication in Western culture about psychedelics. Many people - including Timothy Leary - became very interested and travelled to Mexico. The experiences he had while using psychedelic mushrooms had a big impact on him.

Psychedelics as a therapeutic tool

As soon as he returned to America in 1960, he set up the ‘Harvard Psilocybin Project’, together with Richard Alpert, to research the effects of psilocybin. They used prisoners for this. The research showed that only 20% of the prisoners who were treated with psychedelics would re-offend after being released. This is much lower than the average in America – which was 60% at the time. The results of Leary’s research looked promising. Later on, however, these results were disputed by other researchers who claimed that Leary wasn’t working in a statistically sound manner.

Research into religious experiences

Besides psychedelics as a therapeutic tool, Leary researched mystical experiences while on psychedelics. Together with Walter Pahnke, he conducted the ‘Good Friday experiment’. On a good Friday, a group of theology students in the Boston chapel received a dose of psilocybin or a placebo substance. The placebo substance contained nicotinic acid, which causes light pulsations in the face and has a slightly stimulating effect, but doesn’t do anything psychedelic. Afterwards, nine out of ten participants who used psilocybin reported they had had religious experiences. In hindsight, it showed that for some of them, it had been such an intense experience it had had a big impact on their further life. 

In the placebo group, only one person said they had a mystical experience. This showed that psilocybin can lead to religious experiments.

Promoting LSD

Leary was also a great proponent of the use of LSD in a therapeutic setting. He also said that everyone can have major insights through taking LSD.  Leary’s most famous quote is: ‘Turn in, turn on, drop out’. He became increasingly convinced that LSD could make a serious change in the world by showing people how rigid Western society is. If everyone would take LSD, he thought, a revolution would follow after. This caused many people, especially students, to try LSD.

Unfortunately, sometimes situations occurred where people would get a psychosis or did something dangerous during the trip. Leary, therefore, emphasized that 'set and setting' are very important. By this, he meant that you have to be in a good state of mind when taking LSD. He believed that people with depression should not take LSD, as it might worsen their symptoms. Furthermore, a safe and pleasant environment is very important. Regardless of his good advice, he could not prevent some accidents from happening.

The end of legal LSD

In 1969, America was stricken by the horrendous Manson Family murders. Allegedly, some members of this cult committed these murders whilst on LSD. On top of that, a research was conducted that showed that LSD changes one's chromosomes. Later on, however, this research appeared to be unreliable. Unfortunately, this misinformation had already made it to the front pages of the newspapers. Also, influenced by Leary, many young people stopped seeing the point in doing factory work, studying or working on a career. Instead, they travelled the world in Volkswagen vans. As a result, it didn’t take long before LSD was banned by the government.

According to the Trimbos Institute, however, using LSD is way less risky than, for example, alcohol. The chance of ‘getting stuck’ in an LSD trip is only very small. In fact, when it comes to triggering psychoses, cannabis is a bigger problem than LSD. Therefore, the question remains whether there was a desire to protect the population or whether, above all, the authorities wished to safeguard their own position.

Persecution and release

In 1970, Leary was arrested for possession of a small quantity of cannabis and LSD. Normally, this offence would only be punishable by a maximum of six months in prison. Leary, however, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. In prison, he was screened with a psychologic test he had developed himself. Leary appeared to have no psychologic problems and was therefore relocated to a prison with minimal security. He escaped almost straight away and fled to Switzerland.

This is where he met Albert Hoffman. Hoffman liked Leary and thought he was a very intelligent man. However, he also found him to be very provocative, which would often distract from the true cause.

After three years, Leary was caught by the American Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) and taken back to the USA, where he was put back into prison. He was released early in 1976. After that, Leary would still give lectures at the university, but his reputation as a professor was destroyed to the degree that he could not conduct research anymore.

In the media

As Hofman also mentioned, Leary was a good entertainer. After he was released from prison, some even claimed that his lectures were more like a nightclub act than a lecture with any educational value. Regardless of that, he was still extremely popular among psychonauts. This is why Leary left to Hollywood, and spent most of his time on the internet and making videos. Many of these videos can still be found on the internet.

He also wrote an impressive number of 35 books. Furthermore, many of his famous quotes have been used in song lyrics. After he died, The Moody Blues wrote a song about him, called “Legend of a mind”.

Cyberspace – a new fascination

Today, it’s hard to imagine that twenty-five years ago, hardly anyone had access to the internet. There was no such thing as an online search engine. In this early period, the internet was called “cyberspace”. Leary was fascinated by the digital world, and compared travelling cyberspace with an LSD trip. Today, the internet has become such an obvious part of our existence that comparing it to an acid trip is not realistic. However, at the time, the internet had a magical effect on Leary, and it inspired him to become a programmer. 

Leary’s last trip

At the end of his life, Leary suffered from prostate cancer. He recorded his death struggle on video and uploaded it on the Internet. Initially, he claimed that dying was the most fascinating trip of his life. On his deathbed, he even wrote a book called ‘Design for dying’. Every phase of his death could be followed on the Internet, on television and in the newspapers. He had a plan to commit suicide, record it and broadcast it live. He wanted to do this to show that death is not a bad thing.

Leary also had the idea to have his head frozen, and let it defrost when science is ready, to attach it to a new body, preferably a ‘beautiful brown woman’s body’. At least, that’s what he said. Leary managed to even turn his death into something theatric. Unfortunately, he was unable to keep up this act until the end. He became depressed and hateful. He kept postponing his suicide. In 1996, he died in his sleep, surrounded by loved ones. This moment has been recorded on video but wasn’t broadcasted live.


When summarizing Leary's life, one can see that he was a very good student in his younger years. He received several awards for his work in the army. After that, he wrote a leading psychology book and today, psychology students still learn about his methods. For a long time, he was a great, well-respected psychologist. However, when Leary started to experiment with psilocybin and LSD and became convinced that LSD could change the world, he was declared crazy, imprisoned and ignored.

Unfortunately, most psychology students don't learn that the 'rose of Leary' was created by the same genius who conducted experiments with LSD. These two pieces of Leary's life are often dealt with separately, so many don't know that these two insights come from the same person. If they talk about the first part of his life at psychology school, he is seen as a genius. But if they talk about the second part of his life, he is portrayed as a madman or even a criminal. This polarisation might make one think that something is not right here...

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