Bicycle Day is observed around the world on April 19th, though it’s not exactly a celebration of the bicycle. Instead, the international holiday honors the fortuitous trip made on a bicycle on the day Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann discovered the psychic effects of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide while riding home from his lab. As the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of LSD this Bicycle Day, here’s a look back at how the good doctor stumbled upon the unique drug. “I did not choose LSD,” Hofmann later said. “LSD found and called me.”
Born in Baden, Switzerland, Hofmann had an intense experience as a child that guided him into the world of chemistry and plant science. As a boy walking in the forest near his home, Hofmann had a vivid moment which he became enchanted by the natural world. “As I strolled through the freshly greened woods filled with bird song and lit up by the morning sun, all at once everything appeared in an uncommonly clear light,” he wrote in his book, LSD: My Problem Child. “It shone with the most beautiful radiance, speaking to the heart, as though it wanted to encompass me in its majesty.” Hofmann’s research would eventually become the way he could translate this profound childhood visual experience into something he could experience for the rest of his life.
Homann first synthesized LSD in 1936, while he was working as a research chemist at Sandoz Laboratories. The company was big in the chemical business back then, responsible for inventing substances like saccharin. At Sandoz, he was tasked with working with medicinal plants to isolate, purify and synthesize their active compounds for pharmaceuticals. His studies of ergot, a rye fungus, and its various active compounds, led to the creation of several lysergic acid compounds, and his 25th attempt was aptly named LSD-25. “I had planned the synthesis of this compound with the intention of obtaining a circulatory and respiratory stimulant,” Hofmann wrote in his book. “The new substance, however, aroused no special interest in our pharmacologists and physicians; testing was therefore discontinued.”
Five years passed, and LSD-25 sat on the shelf. Hofmann continued his work but he couldn’t shake the feeling that LSD-25 may have other properties that were missed in the initial testing. On a hunch, he re-synthesized it on April 16th, 1943. In the lab that day, he accidentally absorbed around 20 micrograms of LSD-25 in his skin and recorded in his journal that he had a remarkable experience, one he could only connect to the substance.
A few days later, on April 19th, Hofmann took his experiment further and ingested 250 micrograms of LSD-25, with his assistant’s knowledge. The day moved fast, and his journal marked the shifts. He dosed himself at 4:20pm; diluting the 250 micrograms of crystal in 10cc water and noted it was tasteless. At 5pm, he added, “Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.” The journal went dark after that. Two days later he added that his trip had been most intense from six to eight p.m. – and that during that time, he rode home on his bicycle.
In 1943, wartime vehicle restrictions forbid personal cars on the road, so Hofmann had no choice but to get home on two wheels – though he had, luckily, asked his assistant to escort him home. During the infamous bicycle ride, Hofmann really tapped into the psychic effects of the drug. His assistant said they traveled home safely and at a rapid rate, and Hofmann recanted the event in great detail in his book. “Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux,” he wrote. “It was particularly remarkable how every acoustic perception, such as the sound of a door handle or a passing automobile, became transformed into optical perceptions. Every sound generated a vividly changing image, with its own consistent form and color.”
An amazing discovery, Hofmann wasn’t exactly screaming from the rooftops right away, though he knew LSD-25 was significant. Unfortunately, even after decades of research by scientists and government agencies, LSD was forced underground by prohibition in 1966. “To Albert, LSD was his wonder child that became a problem child,” says Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). “LSD is now is about a third of the way back to being seen as a wonder child with problematic potentials when taken without sufficient support and integration work. The amazing interest in microdosing is creating a new positive reputation for LSD in a new context.”
Many educators and scientists remained positive about LSD over the years, and in 1985, Northern Illinois University educational psychology professor Thomas B. Roberts established April 19th as Bicycle Day, a special day to bring together the psychedelic community and commemorate the epic moment of Hofmann’s self-discovery.
LSD continues to find importance in scientific and social circles around the world. “With the challenge of nationalism, fundamentalism and mental illnesses, LSD is more important in 2018 than ever before,” says Doblin. “LSD is a tool of exploration into our inner worlds where the future of our species’ ability to thrive on this planet will be determined.”