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Pink elephants on parade LSD blotter, from Wikimedia Commons.

Pink elephants on parade LSD blotter, from Wikimedia Commons.

On 19th April 1943, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann accidentally got some of the chemical he was synthesising onto his fingers, resulting in what he described as a dreamlike intoxication that lasted for two hours. His employers, Sandoz pharmaceuticals were quick to recognise that this new drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, had a lot of potential. It was soon being marketed as a psychiatric drug under the trade name Delysid.

Meanwhile in Worcestershire, Ronald Sandison had taken up his first consultancy post at Powick Hospital. Originally built in 1847 to house 200 inmates, the former Worcester County Pauper and Lunatic Asylum was home to around 1000 patients by the 1950s. In his autobiography, A century of psychiatry, psychotherapy and group analysis, Sandison described the hospital as “bleak in the extreme…I discovered that the heating was defunct, many of the internal telephones did not work, and the hospital was deeply impoverished in every department.” As part of attempts to transform the hospital by Sandison and his colleagues, in 1952 he embarked on a study tour of Swiss psychiatric hospitals. It was during this visit that he met Albert Hofmann and became aware of the therapeutic potential of LSD.

Returning to England with a supply of the drug, Sandison developed what he referred to as “psycholytic therapy”, using small amounts of LSD to assist patients in exploring their subconscious. By 1958, Powick Hospital had a dedicated LSD treatment unit, where Sandison worked until he left the hospital in 1964. LSD therapy continued at Powick for a further two years after Sandison’s departure. The increasing publicity around recreational use of LSD by figures such as Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, along with tighter regulation of its use, led to Sandoz withdrawing the drug from the market.

After leaving Powick Hospital, Sandison never again used LSD therapy. However, he continued to believe in its value as a treatment when used in a clinical setting.

Although Ronald Sandison is primarily remembered for his pioneering work in LSD therapy, this was far from his only area of expertise. His personal papers, now available at the Wellcome Library as PP/SAN, show Sandison as a medical renaissance man, who was successful in a number of different fields during his career. Besides his work with LSD and other psychedelic drugs like mescaline and psilocybin, the collection covers his work with the Group Analytic Society, (whose archives are also held by the library, as SA/GAS, and the Pastoral Development Group, as well as his work in in family planning, and with alcoholics in Shetland. Also included are a series of dream diaries kept by Sandison between 1948 and 2009.

Natalie Walters

Natalie Walters is Archives Project Manager at the Wellcome Library. She specialises in the management and curation of born-digital records, and has a worrying knowledge of the history of poisoning.

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