Bill W’s LSD Experiments Prefigured Therapeutic Breakthroughs

New books and articles are published almost daily touting historically recreational drugs as potential options for treating numerous ailments.  Medical marijuana has become nearly mainstream in the US and Canada, while MDMA (ecstasy) is undergoing Phase III clinical trials, currently enjoying FDA “breakthrough therapy” status.[1]  Correspondingly, measured dosages of psilocybin (together with therapy) are showing promise in treatment of both medication-resistant depression and smoking cessation.[2]  Such applications are hardly new.  Medicinal use of psilocybin is ancient in some cultures, and clinical LSD research was initiated as far back as the 1950s, years before psychedelics entered the counter culture.  Official LSD testing in the U.S. ended abruptly in 1970, when the Nixon Administration placed all psychedelic drugs on Schedule 1 of the newly minted Controlled Substances Act.  Government research funding was cut, use for any purpose was deemed unlawful, and test results were scrubbed from the field of psychiatry.  Similar research continued in Saskatoon, Canada until 1973, but results remained uninvestigated south of the Canadian border until 1990, when US-government sanctioned research resumed at the University of New Mexico.

Volunteer subjects for early experiments were an eclectic lot.  Among them were famed writers and mystics Aldous Huxley (Doors of Perception) and Gerald Heard.  They were joined by a collection of searchers that included early Alcoholics Anonymous members and associates, most notably cofounder Bill Wilson.  Encouraged to partake in experiments by Huxley, Heard, and English Psychiatrists Humphrey Osmond and Abram Hoffer, Wilson first ‘tripped’ with his Sponsee Tom Powers in 1956.  Bill became so convinced of the groundbreaking benefits of LSD that he persuaded his spiritual advisors Episcopal Priest Sam Shoemaker and Jesuit Father Ed Dowling to try LSD.  For good measure, Bill also influenced his wife Lois and mistress Helen Wynn to give it a go.[3]

Ever the seeker, Bill met these experiments with his signature open mind.  Hoping to relieve the deep depression that followed him into the 1950s, he also wished to find something that would open the minds of suffering alcoholics who were resistant to spiritual ideas.  Under controlled circumstances, Bill underwent LSD ‘therapy’ several times, first in 1956 at the Los Angeles VA.  From these sessions he found short-term relief from depression.  In a 1957 letter to Gerald Heard, Bill wrote, “I am certain that the LSD experiment has helped me very much.  I find myself with a heightened color perception and an appreciation of beauty almost destroyed by years of depressions.”  During conversation with Aldous Huxley and in various letters, Bill likened his experience to that of his ‘spiritual awakening’ while detoxifying for the last time at Town’s Hospital in 1934. He expressed hope that LSD could be useful in assisting cynical newcomers to open themselves to similar experiences by acting as a ‘temporary ego reducer’.

“It is a generally acknowledged fact in spiritual development that ego reduction makes the influx of God’s grace possible. If, therefore, under LSD we can have a temporary reduction, so that we can better see what we are and where we are going — well, that might be of some help. The goal might become clearer. So, I consider LSD to be of some value to some people, and practically no damage to anyone. It will never take the place of any of the existing means by which we can reduce the ego, and keep it reduced.”[4]

-Bill Wilson

Bill always maintained that LSD “helped him eliminate many barriers erected by the self, or ego, that stand in the way of one’s direct experiences of the cosmos and of god”.[5]  Through his 3 years of research, Bill concluded “that he might have found something that could make a big difference to the lives of many who still suffered.”[6]  Still, Wilson was willing to discontinue personal experimentation and abandon the idea of LSD’s wider application in the face of virulent opposition from the AA community in 1959.

Bill’s LSD phase is hardly a ‘gotcha’ moment for Alcoholics Anonymous.  Although rarely mentioned in meetings, it’s not a topic that the AA organization attempts to conceal or whitewash.  Conversely, an entire chapter is dedicated to the matter in the AA World Service published book ‘Pass It On’: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World.

Was Bill a misguided alky filling his spiritual void with a material substance?  Or a prescient seeker breaking new ground?  That’s a matter of opinion, a function of belief.  In the past, most recovering writers, including Ernest Kurtz, opined the former.  However, the last few year’s medical breakthroughs have changed the tenor of this conversation.  At present, it seems the most passionate skeptics are AA’s staunch traditionalists, many of whom hold unsympathetic views of virtually any sober use of psyche meds.  Less cynical AA members are those that tend to find little conflict between spiritual practice and the application of science (psychiatry) in their programs of recovery.

Medical marijuana, psilocybin and MDMA show clear promise for many sufferers.  In some parts of the US, research data has already moved perception of psilocybin so far toward the mainstream that mushrooms are nearly decriminalized (Denver) or approaching full legalization (Oregon). It seems imminent that they will soon be prescribed, and often to alcoholics that cannot get sober.

Time and science are demonstrating that Wilson was likely onto something when he said that LSD would be “of some value to some people”.  The full therapeutic potential of mushrooms, MDMA, medical marijuana, and even LSD remains to be seen.  By experimenting in the mid-1950s, acknowledging a hallucinogen’s value and attempting to defend it before a hostile world, Wilson proved to be a man many decades ahead of his time.




[2] ibid


[4] Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A Reached the World. pp. 370-371

[5] ibid p. 371

[6] ibid p. 371