Archive Report: The Psychoactive Substances Research Collection at Purdue University

Today’s post is by contributing editor David Korostyshevsky, a history PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota. 

It was a cloudy, rainy, late-March week in West Lafayette, Indiana when I first encountered Purdue University’s Psychoactive Substances Research Collection (PSRC). Maintained by the university library’s Archives and Special Collections, the PSRC offers the papers of important figures in American psychedelic research, from American LSD studies during the 1960s to the resurgence of international medical and scientific research about psychedelic substances during the 1990s. The collection also boasts an incredible shelf list of psychedelic science literature dating to the 1950s, including books, periodicals, and newsletters.

The collection was founded in 2006 with the support of the Betsy Gordon Foundation. Its origins are linked to the work of Purdue pharmacologist David Nichols, who played an important role in the resumption of psychedelic research science in the early 1990s. When Rick Strassman, a psychiatrist at the University of New Mexico, received government approval to test the effects of DMT and psilocybin on human subjects in 1993, Nichols synthesized the drugs in his laboratory. He is also co-founder of the Heffter Research Institute, a non-profit institution that continues to support research on the neuroscience of the mind, the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs, and the connection between body, mind, and consciousness. These events are well covered by the extensive David Nichols Papers and Rick Strassman Papers.

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Today, the collection boasts a wide-range of personal papers representing a veritable who’s who in psychedelic research science. In addition the David Nichols Papers, the collection also includes substantial materials from the central figures in American psychedelic research since the 1950s. Highlights include documentation of LSD experimentation at Spring Grove Hospital in Maryland (Charles Savage and Sanford Unger Papers), the Harvard Psilocybin Project (which was led by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert), the work of Johns Hopkins University researcher William Richards, and the Hollywood Hospital LSD research program and lecture notes.

The collection also includes the papers of other prominent figures within the orbit of twentieth-century psychedelic science such as anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios, mushroom enthusiast John W. Allen, transpersonal psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, and ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna. The PSRC also contains a scattering of letters by figures such as Albert Hofman (discoverer of LSD) and writer Aldous Huxley as well as materials related to research on other psychedelic substances such as DMT, MDMA, and ibogaine.

In addition to archival materials, the collection also offers oral history films on its website and extensive documentation of other archives related to psychedelic science on its website. And, of course, the shelf list of published literature about psychedelics drugs is, in and of itself, a tremendous resource offered by the collection.

18426097_10213305360652911_1155022178_oThere are also several points of historical interest that are unrelated to the history of alcohol, drugs, and psychedelic science in the area that historians ought to know about. Just outside West Lafayette are Prophetstown and the Tippecanoe battlefield and memorial. During the early nineteenth century, tensions rose between the US government and the Native American confederacy led by Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, a religious figure known as The Prophet. Indiana Territory Governor William Henry Harrison responded with a force of approximately one thousand men. Government soldiers and the Native American confederacy met on the field of battle on November 7, 1811. While Tecumseh was not present at the battle, Harrison’s army decisively defeated Tenskwatawa’s men and burned their headquarters at Prophetstown to the ground. Academic historians may take umbrage at how the memorial portrays Native Americans and the wider implications of the battle: their loss is made to seem inevitable and their actions are often described with passive voice. But due to these sites’ significance in the early history of the United States and the beauty of their natural surroundings, they are not to be missed.

The PRSC is also a pleasant place to conduct research. The library staff are friendly and helpful, the Virginia Kelly Karnes Reading Room is very comfortable, and the finding aids are some of the best I have ever encountered. For more information about conducting research at the PSRC, contact the France A. Córdova Archivist Stephanie Schmitz, who, along with the staff, made my visit enjoyable and productive.

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