Shroom Late History... continued

A close up of a lovely Psilocybe semilanceata Image Courtesy of Peter Bergson

Wasson also enlisted the help of two notable scientists, Roger Heim (1900-1979) and Albert Hofmann. Heim set about the task of identifying and describing the mushroom species employed: several species, primarily of the genus Psilocybe (but also Stropharia and Conocybe), were used according to seasonal availability. Sufficient samples of the mushrooms were cultivated back in the laboratory for Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist responsible for the discovery of LSD, to isolate the psychoactive alkaloids: in 1958, while working for the Basle-based Sandoz pharmaceutical company, he successfully synthesized psilocybin and psilocin, which he named after the mushrooms’ Latin epithet. Sandoz later patented it’s newly created chemical compounds and put it on the market under the brand name Indocybin. (Wasson appears to have been rewarded for his part in it’s discovery with a directorship of one of Sandoz’s American subsidiaries).

Though Wasson had little time for hippy culture, hated being treated as a psychedelic guru, and expressed nothing but contempt for Timothy Leary (the Harvard psychologist who, in the sixties, became notorious for his profligate use and advocacy of LSD), his 1957 Life article ‘Seeking the Magic Mushroom’ played a significant role in kick-starting the whole psychedelic revolution. Many of the key figures of that movement, including Leary, experimented with psychedelics as a direct result.

Soon afterwards floods of American hippies streamed to Oaxaca, seeking out Maria Sabina, and the magic mushrooms. It took on a status of some Grande Tour, becoming fashionable with various rock stars, Pete Townsend, John Lennon and Bob Dylan amongst others who went making the pilgrimage. Here was now a case of two cultures meeting with very different sets of attitudes and ideals: Westerners viewed magic mushrooms as a drug to be simply bought and enjoyed, without needing the traditional spiritual side of it. The inevitable culture clash that ensued was bound to lead to problems. We must also remember that the oppressed rural Indian underclass existed on the margins of a modern metropolitan industrial nation, which, during the 1960s and 1970s, developed its own urban counterculture, La Onda, modelled upon the American hippy movement. Many of the hippies who went to Huautla were rather Mexican jipitecas, and as culturally removed from the Mazatec society as their American counterparts. The Mexican authorities, troubled by the effects of mushroom tourism, intervened in 1967 by gaoling or deporting the mushroom seekers, and criminalizing the use of mushrooms a few years later. In this complex scenario, then, the impact of internal socio-political factors upon the indigenes was as important as the arrival of American and European outsiders.

However, the cat was now out of the bag, and magic mushrooms and their unique yet not yet understood properties had caught the interest of not just the hippy community, but the scientific one as well. In an almost utopian spirit, it was hoped that these psychedelics would usher in a new era of understanding of the mind – as an important a tool for psychology as the telescope and microscope had been for astronomy and biology. They would strip bare and magnify the contents of the unconscious; they would allow psychiatrists to find the chemical basis of mental illness; and, at the very least, they would allow scientists to empathise with the world of the schizophrenic by enabling them to temporarily inhabit it themselves. The discovery of psilocybin mushrooms provided yet another window into this mysterious domain of the mind, and the way was now clear for scientists of any discipline to step through this particular looking glass themselves. (See our Research Section).