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Q+A with Jensen Davis

In this Q&A, we spoke with Jensen Davis ’20, a summer 2017 SHARP/Houghton Library Fellow working on a project about the origins of the psychedelic movement in America. She’s studying history and literature with a focus on American studies. 


Q: What interested you in the Julio Santo Domingo collection?

JD: I was initially interested in studying the War on Drugs through the Santo Domingo collection. But when I actually started looking through the archive, I found hundreds of materials from Timothy Leary — the most infamous 1960s psychedelic guru and former Harvard psychology lecturer. I looked through them for fun, but through his materials I became interested in the beginning of the psychedelic movement and how LSD and magic mushrooms entered American culture. So I switched focus to the early psychedelic movement in America, which was in the mid-1950s.  


Q: What’s your favorite piece in the collection?

JD: My favorite piece is this series of collages by an American writer named Peter Stafford in 1982. He was writing a book about the 13 most influential figures in the psychedelic movement and made 23 collages to go into the book. The collages incorporate cutouts from popular psychedelic-inspired newsletters and newspapers — specifically The Oracle — and included photos and images of all the seminal books and people in the movement. The collages are visually engaging (it looks a bit like someone threw up LSD on a page) but also contain so much information about the sources and people in the movement. One collage even includes an original copy from Leary’s mushroom-testing survey at Harvard.


Q: What surprised you most while doing your research?

JD: I knew nothing of the psychedelic movement before starting my research, so I went in with stereotypes and assumptions about the drugs. My assumptions were mainly based on LSD’s popularized connection to 1960s counterculture and the hippie movement. But as I delved into the actual origins of the movement, I found out psychedelic drugs had very elite and academic origins. The first recorded Westerner to try magic mushrooms — and the man to bring them to America — was a banker at J.P. Morgan. LSD was first synthesized in a Swiss lab and anyone in America with a PhD (which, in the mid-’50s meant exclusively white, educated men) could secure a supply of the drug. In the late 1950s, LSD therapy was popular in Beverly Hills and Hollywood with a hefty price tag of $500. During this time LSD and magic mushrooms were mostly available to the wealthy and the intellectuals in America, a demographic I did not initially associate with the rise of psychedelic drugs.


Q: What can we learn about how these “taboo” subjects were discussed in the pop culture of their time? Are there any connections to how they’re spoken about today?

JD: In the early years of the American psychedelic movement [the mid- to late 1950s], LSD and magic mushrooms were totally new and mysterious substances. Neither was illegal and they didn’t have any of the hippie-cultural associations they have today. The scientists and intellectuals working and testing LSD genuinely believed these substances could change the world: their incredibly potent hallucinations and either terror or euphoria were induced by no other drug. The drugs could be revolutionary. This wasn’t so much a dominant narrative in pop culture because LSD didn’t really enter mainstream consciousness until around 1962 or ’63 (many of the intellectuals using LSD thought the drug should be preserved for writers and scientists, not the general American public). But this is how the drug was thought of in the scientific and intellectual communities it first took hold in.  

As the drug entered the general American public, horror stories and warnings of permanent psychosis or flashbacks made newspaper headlines frequently. People were very afraid of LSD and what it could do. This all culminated around 1967 when a very widespread rumor that LSD changed your chromosomes and caused permanent bodily and mental damage started circulating. (Some believe the government started this rumor to scare people out of the drug).  

Although the chromosome rumor was proven false, it still floats around today. The misinformation and panic about LSD in the late 1960s definitely carries through to today. Semi-frequently, stories appear in the Daily Mail, and other pop culture news outlets, about people who take LSD and then stab their significant other, the LSD turning them into a crazy killing machine. And there’s a myth that if you take LSD, you can’t become an astronaut because LSD stays in your spine forever and zero gravity makes the LSD travel around your body and you’ll trip the entire time you’re in space. All of these are false (except acid flashbacks, which exist but are rare and usually occur when smoking weed six months after taking the LSD), but the very palpable panic and fear about the drug, despite scientific testing, has endured.

There is, however, a sort of resurgence of scientific interest and potential medical value of LSD going on. Micro-dosing (taking a tenth of a dose of LSD to stimulate creativity and productivity without the six-hour long hallucinations) is big in Silicon Valley and there’s some new mushroom testing on cancer patients to see if it alleviates existential fear. This narrative seems less noticeable in pop culture but is becoming more and more present.  

Published on December 13, 2017.