Bicycle Day – An Alternative History

by Eric M. Fortier, B.A. | April 19, 2020

Everyone knows the story of Bicycle Day. Hofmann accidentally absorbed LSD through his fingertips and tripped for a couple of hours, returned to the lab on the 19th, dropped 250 mics and rode his bike home with his assistant and undergoes the first experience confirming its profound effects.

But David Nichols thinks it’s kind of curious that something so sloppy could happen to such a meticulous Swiss chemist. Having disproven that it could be absorbed through the skin, even with the help of transdermal solution, Nichols suggests that maybe Hofmann had a serendipitous mystical experience the same day he was synthesizing the 25th derivative of lysergic acid. Since the effects only seemed to last a few hours on that first day (the 16th), it couldn’t have been the LSD because its effects typically last 8-12 hours, he argues.

I think it’s kind of curious that such a magical explanation would come out of such a prolific Purdue neurochemist.

There are… a few more things to consider.

St Peter’s Snow, a 1933 German-language novel (St. Petri-Schnee) by Austrian author and mathematician Leo Perutz, depicts a scientist working on a hallucinogen similar to mescaline, derived from alkaloids found in the fungus that grows on wheat and rye (ergot), known to be responsible for St. Anthony’s Fire, five years before Hofmann synthesized this very same substance, and ten years before announcing its psychoactive effects.

“Faith […] can be kindled by chemistry,” writes Perutz, not “only by patient work, by loving service, and by prayer.” One of the characters, Bibiche, draws geometric figures on a sheet of paper, spirals, small circles, rosettes, and a highly elaborate ornamental number nine (the time she was due back at the lab the next day)…

“What we call the fervour and ecstasy of faith, […] whether as an individual phenomenon or as a group phenomenon, nearly always presents the clinical picture of a state of excitation produced by a hallucinogenic drug,” he explains.

This, thirty years before the Good Friday Experiment finds LSD capable of producing religious mystical experience.

A handful of pages later, Perutz has the scientist outline the idea that ergot was even the most likely source of the secret sacrament of ancient religions–45 years before Wasson’s 1978 work, ‘The Road to Eleusis: The Unveiling of the Mysteries.’

“I have followed the route taken by the wheat parasite through the centuries. I have tracked all its migrations, and I have established that all the great religious movements of the Middle Ages and the modern age […] all the religious struggles, all the ecstatic upheavals began in areas in which St Peter’s Snow had appeared immediately before.”

Could it be that the discovery of LSD wasn’t so serendipitous? What if Hofmann knew what he was doing all along? It’s hard to believe that a German-speaking Swiss chemist, working under Arthur Stoll, who had been researching ergot long before him, wouldn’t have known of Leo Perutz’ book, and had no hint that they might be plunging into the depths of a powerful hallucinogen in the ergot alkaloids–it was one of the primary symptoms of St Anthony’s Fire, after all. How couldn’t they know?

Hofmann insists LSD was a chance discovery. In the simplest and maybe most likely scenario, he got his first peak of LSD by rubbing his eyes or having an accidental lick, or something along those lines. But I can’t help but wonder, did Hofmann or Stoll know what they were looking at all along? The Theosophical Society, followers of Rudolf Steiner, and their recreation of Eleusinian plays, did start in German-speaking Swiss cities, including Basel in the early 20th century, after all.

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