The Points Interview: Erika Dyck

For our third installment of the Points Interview, we move from alcohol to LSD, and a conversation with Erika Dyck, author of Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD From Clinic to Campus. Erika is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. Readers interested in more compelling work in the history of medicine and health may wish to check out a new edited volume by Erika Dyck and Christopher Fletcher, Locating Health: Historical and Anthropological Investigations of Place and Health.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

The Sixties are often remembered for the day-Glow images, groovy terms, tie-dyedCover of Psychedelic Psychiatry fashions, trippy music and, for some people, perhaps even as a period of social and moral degeneration. LSD has been blamed (or credited) for helping to create this imagery, but the drug has a longer history. It was first developed in 1938 and was legally used in thousands of research studies throughout the 1950s before it became known as a more popular recreational drug. My book looks at one of these sets of studies; a set of experiments that took place off the beaten path but that had a significant influence on the way that LSD was studied, understood, and later abused. In the small town of Weyburn, Saskatchewan, with support from Tommy Douglas’ provincial government, the same government that introduced Medicare to Canadians, researchers coined the term ‘psychedelic’ and left their mark on a generation. This book is about those prairie-based psychedelic pioneers.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Drug and alcohol historians may already be familiar with the mythology surrounding LSD and the psychedelic ethos, but they may be less familiar with the way in which LSD was used as a treatment for alcoholism. Far from a ‘magic bullet’ solution, the method underlying these therapies fixed upon a ‘psychedelic experience’ that relied on a combination of spiritual, psychological, medical and environmental or social mechanisms for influencing the will of an alcoholic. This method has closer ties with approaches recommended by Alcoholics Anonymous, with the glaring exception of abstinence or complete sobriety from the equation. Interestingly, the other ingredients made psychedelic therapies unpalatable to the medical community and supporters found themselves caught between two contradictory paradigmatic frameworks.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

Two things in particular have struck me since allowing my thoughts to wander past the topic of LSD. The first is the broader topic of regulation, be that moral or drug. Who ultimately wields sufficient authority to draw the line in the sand that judges the value of a drug, and who then in turn has the authority to police that line? The second, but connected idea, relates more specifically to authority itself. In the world of drugs and drug regulation, which is a better kind of authority: personal experience or academic credibility? In other words, can you be an authority on a drug if you have not had first hand experience with its effects. Conversely, can you be an authority on a drug if you have had first hand experience with its effects? Beyond the colourful history of LSD, how does experience play out in a more modern conceptualization of drug regulation? If your doctor told you that you should try Prozac because she had, and can attest to its safety based on her own first-hand experiences, would we question her ethics or applaud her commitment to providing subjective information? How would her candid description affect your ability to provide informed consent?

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone from Psychedelic Psychiatry are you most curious to see turned over soon?

There are perhaps more stones left unturned than those turned over in this instance. Although I was content to study the LSD experiments as they unfolded under the direction of Saskatchewan-based researchers, there were thousands of LSD studies conducted around the world. Stephen Snelders has probably done more than any other medical historian to draw attention to the ways in which this drug, and in combination with others, shaped mid-century medical research in Europe. A broader set of comparisons with LSD studies conducted elsewhere would add a great deal to our understanding of this drug’s medical history and might allow us to better gauge the influence that LSD had on the medical establishment on a more global scale. On the social and cultural side of the equation, further examination into the relationship between LSD and the so-called counter culture would help to clarify and perhaps even debunk some of the mythology surrounding the ways in which LSD, or psychedelics in particular, contributed to a new way of thinking about authority, more so perhaps than some of the other drugs associated with this period, including marijuana or speed. The relationship between LSD and music, or LSD and art, or even more broadly, LSD and creativity remains a highly contested and understudied area. And, finally (for now), although this drug was developed in a laboratory as a synthetic substance, it bears significant resemblance to a host of organic compounds, many of which have been used for centuries in religious ceremonies, and in traditional indigenous rituals. The Anglo-Euro-American chapter in this larger history is merely one phase that should be considered within a much longer and broader context of humans interacting with mind-altering substances with an unquenched thirst for exploring the depths of the human mind.

BONUS QUESTION: When Ken Burns makes a documentary of your book, who will do the voiceover?

Probably Dame Judi (M) Dench: serious, convincing, and has a flair for intrigue.