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The Harvard Psychedelic Club

How Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil killed the fifties and ushered in a new age for America
By DON LATTIN  |  January 19, 2010


Interview: Don Lattin. By Chris Faraone.
Though it imported most of its principles and philosophies from such Eastern cultures as those in India and Tibet, as well as from south of the border in Mexico, the revolutionary mind/body/spirit movement that has so transformed American and Western society actually got its start in uptight 1960s Greater Boston.

It was here, in buttoned-down Cambridge and in suburban Newton, that four men — Timothy Leary, a Harvard research psychologist; Richard Alpert (better known as Ram Dass, the persona he adopted after an enlightening trip to India), a Harvard psychology professor; Huston Smith, an MIT philosophy professor; and Andrew Weil, a Harvard medical-school student — launched what would eventually become the counterculture movement.

Through their trailblazing experimentation with (and proselytizing of) hallucinogenic drugs, this "Harvard Psychedelic Club" influenced everything from the music, films, and literature of the Western canon; to the rise of the Silicon Valley technology sector; to what we eat, how we exercise, and how we make love; and to our very psychological perceptions of ourselves.

In his new narrative nonfiction work, excerpted here, journalist Don Lattin looks at how, after expanding their consciousnesses with psilocybin mushrooms and LSD, these four "career-driven, linear-thinking intellectuals" advised a generation to "turn on, tune in, and drop out."

Timothy Leary brought the bowl of mushrooms up to his nose and sniffed. The smell reminded him of musty New England basements, or perhaps a downed tree rotting in a damp forest. It was now or never. He slowly placed one of the black moldy things in his mouth and followed up fast with a cold chaser of Mexican beer. The mushrooms tasted worse than they smelled — bitter and stringy. Before he had time to change his mind, he stuffed the rest of them into his mouth, washing the mess down with that more familiar, and refreshing, alcoholic intoxicant.

It was supposed to just be a regular summer vacation, some time to relax before starting the new academic year. Leary and his son, Jack, now 10 years old, scouted out the city of Cuernavaca and found a villa for rent — a rambling white stucco house with scarlet trim, next to a golf course on the road to Acapulco. Cuernavaca, whose name comes from an Aztec word for "place near trees," has been known in more recent times as the "city of eternal spring." Its temperate year-round climate made the place a popular getaway spot for many famous Americans, including Hollywood heiress Barbara Hutton, Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana, and the German-born humanistic psychologist Eric Fromm, who studied Mexican social customs in a village just down the road from the Leary villa. Professor David McClelland, the man who offered Leary his new post at Harvard, was on retreat and working on a book in nearby Tepozlan, about 10 miles away. But the scholar who would have the most impact on Leary's summer vacation — and the rest of his life — was a University of Mexico linguist and anthropologist named Lothar Knauth, who was in the area translating ancient Aztec texts written in Nahuatl.

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Related: Interview: Newsweek's Evan Thomas, Midnight ramblers, Wanting more, More more >
  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Entertainment, Don Lattin, LSD,  More more >
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