I Think LSD Gives People Hope
An Interview with Dr Ronnie Sandison
This interview is taken from historian Andy Roberts’ book Acid Drops.
No one knows with certainty when LSD was first brought to Britain. The British Secret Intelligence Services (MI5 and MI6) were aware of the drug’s use by the CIA in the 1940s, and it is possible the S.I.S. may have conducted LSD trials at Porton Down years before their ‘official’ experiments in 1953. The earliest certain date for LSD’s arrival in Britain seems to be in 1951 when it was trialed at the Crichton Royal in Dumfries.
The first LSD clinic in Britain had its beginnings in 1952 following Dr Ronald Sandison’s (then a Consultant Psychiatrist at Powick Hospital, Gloucestershire) return from the Sandoz Laboratories in Switzerland. He had personally been given a quantity of LSD by its discoverer Albert Hofmann. Sandison went on to use LSD in psychotherapy at Powick Hospital until 1964. After this, Sandison rarely gave interviews about his involvement with the drug.
During research for Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain I visited Sandison at his home in Ledbury, Herefordshire, and was fortunate enough to interview him about his life and times with LSD. At 90, his health was failing, his memory not as sharp as he would have liked, but for me it was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to spend even just a few hours with the man who introduced LSD, and LSD psychotherapy, to Britain.
Andy Roberts: How did you first become aware of LSD?
Ronnie Sandison: Really by accident. As you know I worked at Powick Hospital. I got my first Consultant appointment there in 1951 and the following year, in 1952, I got an invitation to go on a study tour to Switzerland, run by a very well-known psychiatrist, Isobel Wilson. Our first port of call was Basel and from there, as an optional extra, two or three of us went to the Sandoz Laboratories and they were absolutely a-buzz with LSD, they weren’t doing anything else at that particular time. We met Albert Hofmann and W.A. Stoll, and one or two others who were working in it.
The interesting thing was my colleagues seemed rather bored by it, they thought, you know, this was just a chemist playing around with something; but I was immensely excited by it because of some of the things they’d talked about from some of the volunteers. The upshot was, two or three months later I went to Switzerland again and spent more time with Hofmann and brought back a box of ampules of LSD and we started at Powick.
Were they talking about LSD at Sandoz in a psychotherapeutic context at that time?
Not in a psychotherapeutic context as such. What they had done was give LSD to 10–15 volunteers, mostly laboratory workers or people they could easily get hold of. Hofmann had been to Burgholzli Hospital, where one or two patients, I think they were mostly psychotics, were given LSD. It was at a very experimental stage, so I wouldn’t say there was any real psychotherapy going on. But therapy was in the air as you might say, and there was a paper by Stoll (1947) you might have come across that probably was the very first paper on LSD as an aid to psychotherapy.
Another one was Busch and Johnson (1950). They’re a curious pair Busch and Johnson, they never followed up their work. They wrote rather flippantly about it elsewhere and said ‘oh well we just wanted to give the patients a big mental kick, and see what happened’, which didn’t seem to be very scientific or therapeutic. I never met them at any conference and they never did any further work, they just disappeared so we were really on our own at Powick. I had a very able assistant and then we appointed a Registrar to work the whole time with LSD, which was Dai Davies. In the fullness of time, after about two years, we managed to persuade the Regional Hospital Board to build a special unit at Powick which was purpose built for LSD.
How did you persuade them to do that, it must have been a huge financial investment for a substance that was as yet largely untested?
Yes, it cost them in those days about £60,000 [the equivalent of £1.5 million pounds in 2015]. We wrote our first paper, The Therapeutic Value of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide in Mental Illness (1954). That tells you how to do it, and I’ve always valued this paper because although it was the first paper we wrote about LSD it is pretty comprehensive. That was published in 1954, so that was the experience we had from 1952–53, so it covers about a year. Three years later we published the follow up. So, even that first paper generated worldwide publicity and the following year I was invited to go the States to the May meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Some very distinguished people went to that conference. Aldous Huxley was there among others of the day who were distinguished in their field. I started getting invitations, first of all in this country, to various mental hospitals to talk about how to set up LSD units, then later on to various conferences aboard. I had quite a good time!
When you started using LSD at Powick, how did you determine the dosage?
That was purely experimental. The main work was done in Switzerland on the effective dose. Fortunately the effective dose was between 50 and 150 micrograms (µg), well below the tolerance level, so you can give people quite safely up to 500µg and they’re not really going to come to any harm, so that was reassuring. I mean, it’s an incredibly safe drug. The dangers are of course the psychological effects it has on people. Chemically and physiologically it’s entirely safe, and has very few effects on the organism that can be measured. In Stoll’s paper Hofmann talked about his blood pressure being raised a bit, and his pulse was raised, but they settled down after an hour or two, but otherwise, nothing.
There must be quite a difference in the psychological impact of an LSD dose between 50 and 250µg.
So how would you judge a dosage for a particular type of treatment? Or was that done randomly at first?
Not altogether. We recognised that psychotic patients were not suitable, and I think that is generally recognised now. But there were plenty of cases of neurosis, anxiety states and obsessional conditions. A few depressives, but depression was not a very good subject, it could be dangerous as they could get more depressed. It was largely I think on a trial and error basis. But people came forward and were very glad. Any new treatment that psychiatry had was bound to be a sure-fire goer in those days. We trained a group of nurses, who we managed to keep, who were designated just to the LSD unit itself; and we had volunteer car drivers who brought the patients in, and they became part of the team because we used to report to them that a patient might have had some hangover from the day’s treatment when they took the them home. We gradually shifted the treatment from being on an inpatient basis to an outpatient one.
Can you describe the layout of the LSD unit at Powick?
It was a purpose built unit. There were five treatment rooms meaning we could treat up to five patients at one time, with three nurses and two doctors. Very occasionally we’d need to keep the patient in overnight so we could do that. There was also a nurse’s station there where they dropped LSD, that sort of thing. We almost didn’t use any props, the only one we had was this teddy bear and we also had a record player, most patients liked music.
What music was most popular?
Almost entirely folk music or anything that was traditional.
Who chose the music?
We asked the patient if they would like it, and what their favourite was. We had a pretty good selection of records.
When patients were near the end of their LSD experience were they allowed to come down naturally or were they given a drug to suppress the effects?
Sometimes they were given either a barbiturate or occasionally a spot of Largactil. But generally speaking they came down naturally, but we gave them a barbiturate or something in case they had difficulty in sleeping. And we always encouraged them to telephone if they needed to, and some of them did.
How did the apparent sparseness of the treatment room and its contents fit in with later theories about the environment in which LSD should be taken—Leary and others’ ideas about set and setting for instance?
There was nothing specifically about it to suggest a medical setting. It wasn’t just clinical. We had a blackboard and a record player. We tried to make it as pleasant as we could and they could create anything they wanted.
Were your patients told they were being given LSD?
And were they given any information about what LSD was and what effects they might expect?
Partially, there was not a lot we could tell them. We used to get the patients together in a group at the end of the day, not always but sometimes, so they could exchange experiences and ideas and they had a pretty good idea what it was all about.
Did you run group LSD sessions?
We never ran multiple patient LSD sessions, they were all run solely with individuals. I know people did but I can’t think it was a success. I’ll tell you who did though, Spencer, the General Consultant at Powick. He took over from me for a year or two after I left. He was sort of a self-trained therapist, I mean he had some good ideas but I don’t think his heart was in his practice.
Can you tell me when the first conference in Britain devoted to LSD took place?
At the RMPA in 1961; it’s worth noting that the RMPA which was the forerunner of the Royal College of Psychiatrists had quarterly meetings, but their quarterly meetings were always a mixture of psychiatric papers on different subjects which were discussed. This was the first time that the whole of the quarterly meeting lasting three days was devoted to one subject. It was also the first time when non-medical people were invited. This book, Hallucinogenic Drugs and their Psychotherapeutic Use (Crocket et al, 1961), is the Proceedings from that conference, is really the Bible [laughs], I mean it’s really all here. We had some very serious people, their names have probably dropped out now, but for instance Stephen Black from the medical research council, who had done a lot of work on deep trance hypnosis, was there.
Yes, he was an interesting guy and took part in several TV documentaries on strange phenomena in the mid-1960s, such as UFOS and the People Who See Them, which was one of the best documentaries on UFOs ever screened.
We also had Professor Maurice Carstairs who gave the Reith Lectures around that time, in Edinburgh. Cerletti from Sandoz, Richard Crockett, whom I worked with a bit, Betty Eisner from Los Angeles, who was a very good friend of mine, Michael Fordham who was a Jungian analyst. We had a lot of interesting discussions with the analysts at that time. Francis Huxley was there, another of the Huxley clan, Frank Lake of clinical theology fame, Christopher Mayhew—quite a galaxy of people.
Which particular conditions did you think LSD therapy worked best in?
That’s a question people nearly always ask me. What I think is you don’t really choose people for therapy by diagnosis. You treat them much more by the kind of feel you have for them, you think ‘I could help this chap or this woman’. You have to have an engagement with the other person and then you discover if they have an anxiety state or a depression, or whatever. From the point of view of a scientific paper [laughs] you have to write down maybe anxiety states, maybe obsessional states or whatever. Worldwide I think almost every known condition has been treated, purely on the condition that these were the people we were working with. In Canada a long series of alcoholics were treated and they claimed success. I’ve never treated an alcoholic so I can’t really say. I think LSD gives people hope, and I think it gives them access to a part of themselves they never thought existed.
Did any of your LSD therapy patients undergo what might be termed religious experiences?
Yes and no. Have you ever read Walter Pahnke’s papers on the subject? He did the Good Friday experiment. It’s very hard to tell where the boundary is between true religious experience and an experience of something that has a religious flavour or content to it. There is within ourselves a religious self, something innate in us.
How many times would a patient be treated with LSD therapy?
On average usually once a week, sometimes twice a week, not more often than that. Some therapists treated their patients every day—I think that was a mistake, it needs a few days to absorb the experience that you’ve had in any one day and it might take a whole week. Sometimes you need a gap of several weeks. There’s no clear rule about that but that’s the sort of average. Most patients I treated had some follow up with psychotherapeutic sessions after they had finished the LSD treatment, and I think that’s pretty important to allow some sort of closure.
How long was LSD used in Britain in a psychotherapeutic context?
We started in ’52 and I left the Powick LSD unit in ’64 and it was time to start closing down then. Spencer went on to continue treating patients at Powick until, I think, about ’69. But you see, street LSD use started in the early ’60s, particularly in America. You’ve read Grof I expect? You’ll remember that when he went to the States his original intention was to use LSD psychotherapeutically but when he got there found everyone else was taking LSD and so he never did so.
Do you think the negative publicity LSD began to attract in the early to mid-1960s was instrumental in its therapeutic use being stopped?
I think so. There were one or two high profile cases, which I appeared in court about. One was a wealthy American estate agent. He came to Britain, and spent more or less six months on an LSD high, and various other drugs, and then he went to visit a prostitute in Chelsea and they both took LSD. When he came to from the LSD he found she was dead and he had a heavy glass tumbler in his hand and he’d bashed her head in. A tragic case that received an enormous amount of publicity. I didn’t actually give evidence, I was retained by the defence for advice, really, on how to conduct the case. I think there was some justice in it, he got six years—he might easily have got life. There was also a lot of airy-fairy talk about people on LSD staring at the sun and becoming blind, and there were people who jumped out of windows. I think most of those turned out to be false.
Should the medical establishment have resisted the changes and carried on using LSD?
Well, they did! Not in Britain, but notably in Germany. I don’t know but I think it might be possible they might still be using it there! The British psychotherapeutic establishment weren’t told to stop using LSD, but the press were against it, it was made illegal and the British Medical Journal ran a campaign against its use.
The other thing was that, I think it was in ’63, the patent that Sandoz held to manufacture LSD ran out, and so after that time anybody could make it and it was made extensively in places like Czechoslovakia. Prior to that Sandoz kept a very tight grip on where the LSD went to, but once the patent ran out they didn’t apply for its renewal, so that was really the end of it.
LSD therapy continued in what was then Czechoslovakia, there was a man called Milos Vojtěchovský who went on using it probably until well into the ’70s. I went to visit his clinic in 1970 which was about ten miles outside Prague and had a most interesting day there. He was running a small mental hospital, and he divided his patients into three: those that he believed needed mainly occupational therapy, rehabilitation work with a bit of psychotherapy; the second group were those he thought needed group therapy; and the third lot were those who needed LSD. A very interesting division!
It was a small hospital of about one hundred beds, ideal. He was doing some very good work, and even though it was only two years after the Russian occupation—and the Russians would not allow any drugs—somehow he managed to persuade the Russian government that he was doing therapeutic work and he managed to persuade them that he could use LSD psychotherapeutically.
What was your opinion about LSD’s non-medical, street use by, for want of a better word, ‘hippies’?
On the whole it was a bad thing. It had come at a spiritual time of course, in the ‘60s, Flower Power coming in on the back of the Beat movement. There was a tremendous ‘high’ among young people and inevitably they sought drugs to intensify their experiences and that’s what it was largely about - with Timothy Leary saying ‘Turn on the world’ and even therapists saying everyone should take it, which is absolute nonsense. Then there were the therapists in the States, who shall remain nameless, who were taking LSD with their patients. Who keeps the boundaries? It was an era when every kind of experiment with human experience was being explored.
Did you introduce a Canadian called Al Hubbard to LSD, as Martin Lee claims in Acid Dreams?
No, I’ve ever heard that before. Definitely no. I’ve heard of Hubbard and may probably have met him, but no.
Were you aware of the Secret Intelligence Service experiments with LSD in the 1950s and the Ministry of Defence trials with it in the 1960s at Porton Down?
I was aware of them, yes, aware that something was happening but not the content or the details. They had no connection with the medical establishment and weren’t going to talk to anybody. They had the notion, like they did in WWI, that if you got the wind in the right direction… they often talked about drifting LSD vapour over the enemy.
Did you ever take LSD yourself, and if you did what was your opinion of it?
Yes I did. I took it for me, to see what I could learn about myself and to find out what the patients were experiencing. I don’t know if I formed an opinion. What I did learn was that you should never take LSD alone, you could get into all sorts of difficulties if you do, and you need to have a trusted person with you. I had Sister Hopkin with me. I did it one Sunday. We were both off duty, and she was just there, it was very, very helpful. I have written it up but I don’t intend ever to publish it, I’ll keep it private. It wasn’t just a whim, it was part of the work of getting to know LSD. One or two of the Registrars also asked if they could take LSD and they followed the same procedure. There is of course the question as to what extent LSD is addictive and I’m always maintained it is not truly addictive. You can get addicted to the idea of LSD though. In all my patients I only came across one, who said that a year after taking LSD he had an intense desire to take it again. He even thought about breaking into the LSD unit to get some!
As for LSD’s use in the future, there aren’t very many psychiatrists who feel that it’s a useful drug. When I started using LSD in therapy over 40 years ago the split had already started between general psychiatry and psychotherapy, and that divide has gradually widened into psychotherapists and psychoanalysts and an increasing number of lay-psychotherapists, all doing very good work. And then you have the general psychiatrists who have become more and more a victim of the drug companies. I really believe you can be a psychiatrist these days without having much knowledge of the mind, if you hand out the right pill to a patient.
So there’s a future yet for LSD in the treatment of malaises of the mind?
Oh yes, very definitely, yes.
Ronnie Sandison died on 18th June, 2010. His papers are now in the Wellcome Trust, London.
Help support our psychedelic writing and independent research by taking out a free or paid subscription: