Timothy Leary

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Leary in 1989.
Our secret stash of
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Highs and lows
The real, real goal of the scientist is to flip out.
—Leary, 1967[1][2]:259[3]

Timothy Francis Leary, Jr. (1920–1996)[4] was an American research psychologist who later became an advocate for psychedelic drugs and an important figure in the US counterculture in the late 20th century. He promoted the use of LSD both recreationally and as a psychiatric drug, and was also interested in transhumanism.

Richard Nixon called him "the most dangerous man in America",[5] although Nixon was probably projecting.

Academic and professional career[edit]

Leary earned a doctoral degree in psychology from the University of California Berkeley in 1950, with the thesis, The Social Dimensions of Personality: Group Process and Structure.[6] Starting in 1951, Leary began publishing in the subfield of interpersonal psychology.[7] And after receiving his doctorate, Leary began working as an assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at the University of California, San Francisco and at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, California.

Starting at least in graduate school, Leary was drinking heavily and having frequent extramarital affairs despite having two young children with his wife.[2]:169 In October 1955, capping off a night of getting drunk together, Leary's wife confessed to him that she knew about his mistress and that she was "incredibly unhappy" about it. Leary's reply to her was "That's your problem."[2]:170 The following morning, Leary found a suicide note from his wife on the bed ("I cannot live without your love.") and her body in the car in the garage, dead by carbon monoxide poisoning.[2]:170 There was clearly a disconnect between the psychologist publishing on interpersonal psychology and the one who could not acknowledge his own interpersonal problems.

In 1956 Leary was treating chronic alcoholics, but at that time Leary himself "drank all the time" according to a colleague. Compounding the difficulty of an active alcoholic attempting to treat active alcoholics, Leary had an unusual informal approach of befriending patients.[2]:171

In 1959 Leary took an academic position at Harvard University. He teamed up with another Harvard academic, Richard Alpert (later known as Ram DassWikipedia), to start the Harvard Psilocybin Project which administered the mushroom-derived psychedelic to volunteers (graduate students and prisoners) and documented their feelings and experiences. At the time psychedelics such as psilocybin and LSD were legal in the US.[8] It has been suggested that his enthusiasm arose out of personal trauma in the 1950s, including the death of his wife Marianne in 1955 and a mysterious illness he suffered on a trip to Spain.[9]

There had been some earlier research on psychedelics, but mainly by the CIA or military looking to use it as a weapon (e.g., MKULTRA), and by researchers as a way of provoking symptoms similar to psychosis; in contrast the Harvard team were interested in the consciousness-expanding possibilities. The claim that the project was associated with MKULTRA is plausible because the study was claimed to have been supervised by Harvard Professor Henry Murray;Wikipedia[10] Murray had been an employee of the OSS, the World War II precursor to the CIA. One project on inmates at Concord Prison, Massachusetts claimed to find a significant reduction in recidivism among people given psilocybin shortly before their release; however in 1998 a re-analysis of the results revealed that recidivism had not been measured consistently and the effect disappeared if recidivism rates were measured at the same time after release for everyone (rather than an average of 10 months for the psychedelic pioneers and 30 months for the control group).[5][11][12]

Another study, the Good Friday Experiment (a.k.a. Marsh Chapel Experiment), involved giving psilocybin to divinity students, who described intense spiritual experiences. However, the researchers suppressed the unwelcome fact that one student had a bad trip and had to be treated with thorazine.[5]

In 1963, Alpert was sacked after giving psilocybin to an undergraduate student outside the proper research and ethical procedures; Alpert later said that the student called it "the most profound educational experience in my life". The Psilocybin Project was closed down and Leary was dismissed for a more mundane reason: a failure to turn up and teach his classes. Because of the project's notoriety and ethical breaches, both men were effectively banned from further academic work.[8][13]


Leary was able to continue his research alongside Alpert and another ex-Harvard scientist, Ralph Metzner, at Millbrook a 64-room mansion in upstate New York, where they established a new institute of psychedelic research in September 1963. This was thanks to funding from the heirs of Andrew MellonWikipedia (1855–1937), an early 20th century banker, industrialist, and Republican politician, who had the misfortune to be US Secretary of the Treasury at the time of the 1929 stock market crash; Millbrook belonged to Andrew Mellon's nephew William Mellon Hitchcock. The group published a journal, The Psychedelic Review, and a book, The Psychedelic Experience (1964), which became a popular manual for those using recreational psychedelics.[13] More books followed, including High Priest and Politics of Ecstasy (both 1968).[9]

Leary became closely linked with the promotion of psychedelic drugs. Legend has it that Marshall McLuhan suggested he come up with a short, snappy slogan to promote LSD, and soon afterwards Leary came up with the slogan "Turn on, tune in, drop out." in the shower.[9] He administered psychedelic drugs to many famous people including Allen Ginsberg,Wikipedia William S. Burroughs,Wikipedia Jack Kerouac,Wikipedia Robert Lowell,Wikipedia and Arthur Koestler.Wikipedia[9] In 1961, when Burroughs had visited Leary to take LSD. Burroughs had previous experience with ayahuasca[14] but subsequently warned a friend against associating with Leary, writing "Situation here worse than I can tell you." and "Do not take any hallucinogen under any circumstances."[note 1][2]:221-222 Leary's unrestrained promotion of LSD was despite the fact that he had personally witnessed but ignored a very bad LSD trip in 1960.[2]:214

In the Millbrook era he married twice; his 1967 wedding to his third wife Rosemary Woodruff was directed by cowboy actor Ted Markland, and all the guests were allegedly on LSD.[9]

Meanwhile, LSD was becoming popular in the counterculture, such that the US government made it illegal in 1968.[15] Leary was considered a threat to the nation's morals by the Republican Party, but many on the left were also dismissive, with The New Republic condemning his "patina of phoniness" in 1968.[9] His benefactor Hitchcock was involved in the manufacture of LSD, and its sale centered around a head shop in Laguna Beach in southern California, even after the drug became illegal; in the early 1970s Hitchcock was caught for tax evasion and forced to testify against his partners in crime.[16]

Village Voice reporter Don McNeil, who visited Leary in 1968, found that Leary was not actually taking psychedelic drugs very often, and preferred to supervise others.[16]

In 1968, Leary moved to California; he had become involved with the California-based Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a tax-exempt corporation of which Leary became leader; the Brotherhood had merged with Leary's earlier League for Spiritual Discovery.[16]

On the run[edit]

Leary being escorted by the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1972

In 1970 he announced plans to run for governor of California but soon after was arrested in the state for marijuana offences and sentenced to ten years in jail; he was also due to stand trial for similar offences in Texas. He escaped from San Luis Obispo prison in daredevil fashion, climbing a telegraph pole, along a cable across the prison yard, and then over barbed wire. He was smuggled out of the US by sympathizers (sometimes said to be members of the Weather Underground although this is unconfirmed) and wound up in Algeria with Black Panther Party member Eldridge Cleaver. Not surprisingly he didn't have a lot in common with Cleaver, and fled via Switzerland to Afghanistan, where he was captured and sent back to the American penal system, serving three years in jail before being released in 1976.[9]

Later years[edit]

His autobiography Flashbacks was published in 1983.[17]

In January 1996 he was diagnosed with untreatable cancer, and declared "I'm looking forward to the most fascinating experience in life, which is dying." He got his wish on May 31, 1996.[9]

Conspiracy theories about Leary[edit]

Leary is sometimes linked to conspiracy theories about MKULTRA, the CIA's mind-control program, which used psychedelics along with many other drugs. Russ Winter (of Winter Watch: Speaking Truth To Power) formulated a theory that claims to link Leary to the CIA and other secret government figures. Supposedly Paul Mellon, a son of Andrew Mellon, was involved with the OSS (a precursor to the CIA) during World War Two. Lyndon LaRouche claimed that "In the early 60s, Billy Mellon-Hitchcock almost singlehandedly bankrolled mass-production and distribution of LSD (which, hardly by coincidence, was at the time the subject of testing by the CIA’s secret MK-ULTRA program) — financing this effort through known CIA fronts like Castle Bank in the Bahamas". Winter also claims Hitchcock was linked to the Hells Angels, who were involved in dealing drugs, laundering Hells Angels money. Winter also points to the lack of legal consequences suffered by Hitchcock and several linked figures despite their links to illegal drug distribution.[18]

It is reported that Nixon associate G. Gordon Liddy while prosecutor for Dutchess County, New York, investigated Hitchcock for illegal drugs, but ended up only levying a nominal fine.[16] Again this suggests conspiracy, but does not prove it.

Leary's autobiography Flashbacks does mention the CIA and their programs such as MKULTRA which were interested in psychedelics and Leary's research; however, Leary saw the government as his enemy and psychedelics as a way of overcoming state control and authoritarian modes of thought.[17] It's not clear that the CIA would need Hitchcock or Leary to get drugs for MKULTRA, which was near its end when LSD became illegal in 1968. Until the late 1960s, LSD was easily available from Switzerland, amongst other sources.[16] The facts of Hitchcock's drugs career are well-known, and he received a suspended sentence after testifying against his former associates.[16] But that does not suggest any US government involvement; and even if they contacted Hitchcock that does not imply that Leary would be involved or supportive of state-sponsored mind control activities.

See also[edit]


  1. Emphasis in original.


  1. The Historic LSD Debate at MIT: Timothy Leary v. Professor Jerome Lettvin (1967) (September 16th, 2014) Open Culture.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science by Benjamin Breen (2024) Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 1538722372.
  3. MIT Debate on LSD: Dr. Jerry Lettvin + Dr. Timothy Leary - November 1967 (Sep 30, 2012) YouTube.
  4. Kate Coleman, Acid Trips and Frozen Heads at San Francisco’s Trippiest Party. Archived from The Daily Beast, 18 February 2009.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Timothy Leary's Transformation From Scientist to Psychedelic Celebrity, Wired, October 1, 2013
  6. The Social Dimensions of Personality: Group Process and Structure by Timothy Francis Leary (1950) University of California Berkeley.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Timothy Leary bibliography.
  8. 8.0 8.1 People: Timothy Leary, Department of Psychology, Harvard, accessed Oct 21, 2021
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 Timothy Leary, Pied Piper Of Psychedelic 60's, Dies at 75, New York Times, June 1, 1996
  10. Harvard's Experiment on the Unabomber, Class of '62: An odd footnote to Kaczynski's class reunion. by Jonathan D Moreno (May 25, 2012) Psychology Today.
  11. Dr.Leary's Concord Prison Experiment: A 34-year follow-up study by Rick Doblin (1998) Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 30(4):419-426.
  12. Use of psychedelic drugs in prisoner rehabilitation by Timothy Leary & Ralph Metzner (1968) British Journal of Social Psychiatry 2:27-51.
  13. 13.0 13.1 This magical drug mansion in Upstate New York is where the psychedelic ’60s took off, Timeline, July 14, 2017
  14. The Yage Letters by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (1963) City Lights Books.
  15. LSD, History.com, August 21, 2018
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 The Acid Profiteers: Drop-Out, Turn-On, Cash-In, Village Voice, August 22, 1974, republished August 22, 2019
  17. 17.0 17.1 Hi!, Michael Nevel, London Review of Books vol 5 number 19, 1983
  18. William Mellon Hitchcock: Bon Vivant Who Helped Bankroll the LSD Counterculture, Russ Winter, Winter Watch, August 6, 2021