1524 LSD & Hollywood North
The Acid Room: The Psychedelic Trials and Tribulations of Hollywood Hospital
by Jesse Donaldson and Erika Dyck
Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2022
$18.00 / 9781772141863
Reviewed by Ron Verzuh
Acid Test in New West: LSD entered the world through the doors of a BC Hospital
Before LSD guru Timothy Leary (“tune in, turn on and drop out”), before Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and before Grateful Dead soundman Owsley Stanley blew the minds of a generation of Deadheads with his high-powered blotter acid, “the Captain” of acid trips, Alfred Hubbard, set up the Hollywood Hospital in New Westminster, BC, and the acid room was born.
With a mail-order science degree, the man who started it all back in the 1950s, brought hallucinogenic therapy to the wealthy, famous and influential set. Actor Cary Grant was an acidhead, so were singer Andy Williams and Robert F. Kennedy’s wife Ethel Kennedy.
Grant claimed to have taken hundreds of trips. Also among the luminaries was Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World. He wanted to try a supervised mescaline trip and did so. In all, the hospital supervised more than 6,000 acid trips with an astonishing success rate of 50-80 per cent.
We meet some of them in The Acid Room as we journey through modern history to a building in New Westminster that no longer exists. Its memory, however, was seared into the minds of the thousands who visited from 1957 to 1968 in search of a cure for alcoholism, drug addiction and sexual dissatisfaction.
Leary blew the lid off hallucinogenic drugs and opened the door to a youth counterculture seeking a brave new world. Harvard University fired him for promoting the drug and he became a counterculture cult figure. Kesey and his Pranksters, with their paisley painted bus stuffed to the gills with hallucinogens, dropped acid from California to Woodstock. And Owsley purportedly produced five million hits of his coveted product making it the prime choice drug of the 1960s.
Meanwhile, Hollywood Hospital and a laboratory in Saskatoon were the epicentre of research and medically supervised tests of the still-legal lysergic acid diethylamide. This small but intricately detailed book takes us back through those years to when people sought unorthodox treatments for such concerns as alcoholism, sexual performance, depression, and other mental problems.
Huxley plays a significant role in the book as the regular correspondent of British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, weighing in on the experimental work of Hubbard, Abram Hoffer, hospital director Dr. J. Ross MacLean, therapist Frank Ogden and others who served as pioneering psychedelic medicine practitioners.
In 1953, “Huxley had learned of his [Osmond’s] research program, and, fascinated by the possibilities, requested an opportunity to experience mescalin for himself,” the authors note. Osmond drove to Los Angeles to meet Huxley and his wife Maria. One of the results was The Doors of Perception, Huxley’s description of the “transformative” drug experience.
Hubbard was an uneducated proponent of LSD who had served time on a bootlegging conviction, captained a luxury yacht, become a radio technologist, and experienced an “angelic vision.” His criminal past behind him, Hubbard became an “instant convert” to LSD-25.
After his first trip, he described “the deepest mystical thing I’ve ever seen” and somehow procured thousands of acid tablets to distribute. He had found his calling, but he needed a continual supply of the drug.
Part huckster, part Catholic proselytizer and part “acid expert,” Hubbard was a welcomed member of the inner circle at the hospital that Dr. MacLean had established in New Westminster in 1956. On meeting Hubbard, Leary described is as follows: “He blew in laying down the most incredible atmosphere of mystery and flamboyance, and really impressive bullshit.” Nevertheless, he had launched an era-shifting drug craze.
Vancouver Province reporter Ben Metcalfe, later an environmentalist and part of the founding of Greenpeace, wrote about the hospital and eventually got curious enough to take a trip. His conclusion: “He who is about to come to life under the impact of LSD-25 must first learn how to die.” Some of his fellow experimenters might have agreed, as the book’s quoted diary entries suggest.
One candidate sought courage to continue in a life fraught with discouragement and loss. Claire Fisher recalled that “pain wracked her body and she felt herself falling as if she had been torn from the womb.” Patrick Sealgair wanted an “end to my homosexuality,” recalling the constant beatings his mother administered.” World weight-lifting champion Doug Hepburn was “terrified,” but his trip “would transform the rest of his life.”
The authors weave us through the saga of Hubbard and his more legitimate colleagues, his eventual departure, and the struggle to keep the hospital going despite the growing criticism of LSD as a therapy drug. The Canadian government declared LSD illegal in 1968 and by 1971 the acid room had been closed.
Author Dyck, whose previous credits include Psychedelic Psychiatry, and her journalist co-author Jesse Donaldson make no claims to writing a “balanced” account of The Acid Room. Instead, they provide a sobering look at a medical institution, intended to help people, but that suffered the barbs of a society content to see drug therapy through a lens of “moral panic, racism, and social control.”
Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker whose latest book, Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for its Life in Wartime Western Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2022), is reviewed by Bryan D. Palmer; an earlier book, Codename Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb (2018), is reviewed by Mike Sasges. Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh’s work has appeared in The British Columbia Review since it was founded in 2016. He has contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy and has recently reviewed books by Michael Cone, Bob Williams, Larry Gambone, Terry Gainer, Marilyn Kriete, and Michael Neitzel. Ron lives in Victoria.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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