Dr. Humphry Osmond, a pioneer in the therapeutic use of hallucinogenic drugs to treat alcoholism and other psychological ailments, died at his home in Appleton, Wisconsin, on February 6. But despite his groundbreaking scientific accomplishments, Osmond is better known as the man who turned on Aldous Huxley, who in turn became part of a cultural elite that helped introduce a whole generation to LSD and a host of other psychedelics. And, by the way, Osmond was the man who created the term "psychedelic."
In the 1950s, Osmond led the way with studies of the effect of LSD on alcoholism and had amazing success rates. By the late 1960s, medical journals had published more than a thousand articles on the therapeutic use of psychedelics. But since then, similar research has been largely blocked as psychedelics became identified with a youthful counterculture, and science has fallen victim to the cultural war on drugs. Only a few courageous individuals and institutions, such as Rick Doblin and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (http://www.maps.org), have in recent years sought to pick up the torch first lit by Osmond nearly a half-century ago.
Ironically, by providing British writer Huxley with his first taste of psychedelics -- a healthy dose of mescaline in May, 1953 -- Osmond helped precipitate the very cultural phenomenon that later made reseach into psychedelics difficult, if not impossible. Huxley, already well-known as the author of the dystopian classic, "Brave New World," where a totalitarian government rules a populace controlled by drugs, soon produced the novel "The Doors of Perception," based on his pleasant and impressive psychedelic experiences. That book soon became part of a quickly expanding psychedelic canon that both chronicled and helped forge the massive, and in no small way drug-induced, cultural shifts of the 1960s and beyond.
Interestingly, Huxley took the title for his book from the poetry of early 19th Century visionary anarchist William Blake. And as Huxley borrowed from Blake, so 1960s LA rocker Jim Morrison borrowed from Huxley, naming his band The Doors in honor of Huxley's psychedelic tome. The counterculture may often be hidden, but its subterranean currents flow down through the centuries.
Osmond publicly coined the term psychedelic at a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1957. The word meant "mind-manifesting," he wrote, calling it "clear, euphonious and uncontaminated by other associations." And he offered up some doggerel to explain: "To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic."
An appropriately Blakean suggestion from a man who would have been proud to walk beside the great London Dissenter. Humphry Osmond will be missed.