“I did this,” he later wrote, “in order to investigate the influence of the surroundings, of the outer and inner conditions on the LSD experience. These experiments showed me the enormous impact of—to use modern terms—set and setting on the content and character of the experience.”
But just 40 minutes after that initial dose, he wrote the one and only entry in his lab journal:
Historians now attribute this and similar events throughout early history to long-term exposure to infected grains, a condition known as St. Anthony’s fire, after the French monastic order that devoted itself to caring for the plague’s victims. Ergot was not suspected as the cause until the late 17th century. Eventually, ergotism’s toxic effects were classified into two categories: gangrenous ergotism and convulsive ergotism. The description of the symptoms on a University of Hawaii botany website is enough to permanently put a person off rye bread:
The horror softened and gave way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude, the more normal perceptions and thoughts returned, and I became more confident that the danger of insanity was conclusively past.
Hofmann developed a synthetic process to build the ergot compounds from their component chemicals. Using this method, he recreated ergot’s active ingredients as well as novel but similar compounds that, based on the potency of the ergot compounds, could reasonably be expected to have medical uses.
Arthur Stoll’s accomplishment was to isolate the compounds in ergot that caused the constrictions: ergotamine and ergobasine. In its refined form, the compound could be precisely dosed to avoid a host of side effects from other unhelpful compounds in ergot—properties that made Sandoz a lot of money and launched the pharmaceutical research and development department that hired Hofmann to teach 12 years later.
He had hoped for something that could stimulate circulation and respiration. But his hopes were dashed, though the research report noted in passing that the experimental animals became highly excited during testing. “The new substance, however, aroused no special interest in our pharmacologists and physicians; testing was therefore discontinued.”
His account continued:
In its natural form and in quantity, ergot was a deadly poison and a scourge responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people over many centuries. In 857 in what is now Germany, a contemporary accounting of the events of the year recorded that “a great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.”
After the drug was dismissed by the pharmaceutical company that developed it, a researcher started experimenting on himself with it. Powerful hallucinations ensued.