Friday, February 10, 2006

Turned on, tuned in, kicked out

The late counterculture guru and LSD advocate Timothy Leary, famed for his 1960s motto “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” was an undergraduate in the 1940s at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Leary was most familiar at the time with the traditional undergraduate drug, alcohol. By the time the Massachusetts native came to Tuscaloosa, he already had been kicked out of West Point for a liquor bust. But his interest in harder drugs seems to have come much later, after he left Alabama for good.

The head of the UA psychology department told Leary that he needed intelligent students, and this much impressed the young man. Leary later recalled: “This was the first time in my life that I had heard anyone imply intelligence was a desirable trait. Up to this moment being smart had always got me in trouble. Conformity was the virtue I was used to hearing about.”

Leary got into trouble on the Tuscaloosa campus not for alcohol but for another time-honored reason: spending the night with a girlfriend in her dormitory. (Which dorm, I wonder?)

He was kicked out of school again, an act with serious consequences in the middle of World War II. Leary lost his draft deferment and was sent to artillery training at Fort Eustis, Va.

But the Army needed psychologists as well as artillerymen, and the former head of the UA psychology department was now chief psychologist at an Army hospital in Pennsylvania. Leary was allowed to complete his UA degree in the Army in 1943 and transfer to his mentor’s hospital, which is where his medical career began.

Leary’s interest in hallucinogens apparently dates from 1957, after his wife’s suicide, when as a researcher at the Kaiser Foundation he read an article about them in Life magazine.

It’s interesting that the two most influential LSD researchers of the 20th century both spent years in Tuscaloosa: Leary as a UA undergrad in the 1940s and (as I wrote about in the book Alabama Curiosities) Humphry Osmond on staff at Bryce Hospital from 1971 to 1992. Could it be something in the water?


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