Psychedelic psychiatry in Saskatchewan

How women contributed to the famed LSD research

Photo illustration based on 1932 photograph of Aberdeen, University of Saskatchewan, University Archives and Special Collections, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool

IN THE 1950s, Saskatchewan—particularly the small southeastern community of Weyburn—was a hotbed of hallucinogenic drug research.

At the start of the decade, the provincial government hired Saskatchewan-born psychiatrist Abram Hoffer to develop a research program in psychiatry. In 1951, Hoffer was joined by British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who came to Weyburn’s mental hospital during a time of significant health-care reform: the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) government, led by Premier T.C. (Tommy) Douglas, was working to develop a single-payer, universal medical insurance plan in Saskatchewan.

Osmond was an innovator in his field, having previously examined hallucinogenic drugs in relation to schizophrenia. Hoffer, meanwhile, had a background in chemistry. It was kismet; the meeting of the two scientists in Weyburn would eventually alter the course of medical history. Soon, they began working together on a large study using lysergic acid diethylamide—more commonly known as LSD—as a potential treatment for mental health issues ranging from anxiety to alcoholism. 

Dr. Erika Dyck (BA’98, MA’00), a faculty member in the College of Arts and Science and Canada Research Chair in the History of Medicine, has written, co-written and co-edited numerous books on this hallucinogenic history, including Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD on the Canadian Prairies, Managing Madness: Weyburn Mental Hospital and the Transformation of Psychiatric Care in Canada, and, most recently, Psychedelic Prophets: The Letters of Aldous Huxley and Humphry Osmond

According to Dyck, the health-care reforms that began in the 1940s in Saskatchewan created an “unprecedented climate” for psychedelic research in the 1950s. Provincial grants were available to researchers, and there was a desire in Saskatchewan to link health research to health-care policy. LSD was provided at no cost to the scientists, she says, because it was still in the experimental phase and so the company that manufactured it in Switzerland gave it away for free. Psychedelics seemed to hold untapped potential for curing various ailments, and the notion of LSD as an inexpensive treatment was enticing in Saskatchewan.

Dr. Erika Dyck (BA’98, MA’00). [icon image] David Stobbe
Dr. Erika Dyck (BA’98, MA’00). David Stobbe

“If you’re imagining developing a publicly funded health-care system, you probably want something that is long-term and successful and relatively cheap. So psychedelics fit that model,” says Dyck. “LSD treatments were supposed to be a one-time treatment. It might take two days, but one LSD treatment was supposed to help you in a variety of ways; for alcoholism, they had 90-per-cent success rates in some units.”

Thanks to Dyck and fellow medical historians, Saskatchewan’s hallucinogenic history is now relatively well known. In fact, the term “psychedelic” was even coined here; that happened when Osmond wrote to his friend, the famous writer Aldous Huxley, “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic.”

Still, there are details of Saskatchewan’s psychedelic past that are not well known. Until recently, the vital role women played in the province’s ground-breaking LSD study was not publicized. Perhaps that’s not surprising, given the deeply entrenched gender roles and stereotypes of the 1950s, which often saw women in subservience to their male counterparts. But, through her extensive work in the area of psychedelic science, Dyck has discovered that women in Saskatchewan were “integral to the proliferation of psychedelic research.”

At first blush, that may seem strange. After all, the 1950s were a time when women did not have the same educational opportunities as men, and they were largely expected to focus on domestic labour in the family home. However, in a move that would be considered unusual and unethical in today’s medical research climate, Osmond and Hoffer themselves took LSD to better understand their patients’ experiences. They encouraged their wives, as well as the staff at Weyburn’s hospital, to try it, too.

As Dyck examined the early LSD experiments, she realized that the men who first began exploring the drugs didn’t really know what they were doing—and they didn’t really understand what the drugs were doing, either. The male researchers worried that taking LSD could cause them to go permanently insane. That’s where the women came in: the men often asked their wives to help them through their drug experiences and to assuage their fears.

“Their wives were the ones that they really trusted the most, and so the wives became really integral to helping them make sense of these experiences,” says Dyck, noting the women also assisted in the articulation of the drug experiences in resulting research papers.

“Most of the wives took LSD because that was part of the research, and part of the researchers’ ethic was that you had to understand it first to be able to talk about it. And so most of the men took it for the first time with their wives.”

While the women weren’t often paid for their research work and weren’t formally recognized for their roles in the LSD study, they were “actually vital to the operations,” Dyck emphasizes. The wives themselves were keen to help the male scientists; coming from single-income homes, they felt heavily invested in the success of their husbands’ work.

Photographer Mike Kesterton captured images of everyday life at Weyburn’s mental hospital in 1953. University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, Mike Kesterton

“There’s a sense—almost an implicit sense—that there is a kind of partnership that extends even into the workplace,” Dyck says of these 1950s marital relationships. “I think this is an interesting kind of re-thinking of the separate spheres notion or the fact that there’s these gendered divisions. Yes, one person is getting the money—but that money is not going to come in without the partnership.”

Dyck interviewed some of the women who were involved in the 1950s LSD experiments in Saskatchewan. While they “felt very much a part of the research,” she says, they didn’t insist that their names be included on research publications. And, Dyck notes, the women weren’t occupying an entirely subservient role while they were caring for and nursing people through LSD experiences. In fact, it was largely the men who were vulnerable in these situations; they relied on the women to help calm their nerves and to help make sense of their altered mental states.

Says Dyck: “I think psychedelics are an incredibly rich intellectual space for thinking through a variety of different things, whether it’s science or gender relations or what constitutes reality and unreality.”

These pioneering Saskatchewan women were influential in other ways as well. Notably, they encouraged the male scientists to explore unorthodox ideas and to work with practitioners who were often considered to be outside the bounds of traditional science, such as psychics, parapsychologists and people interested in the paranormal. Huxley’s first wife, Maria, for example, was interested in magic and spirituality and pushed him to explore parapsychology and Indigenous rituals. 

“They would play with these ideas as a way, I think, to sort of fuel their intellectual curiosity about what psychedelics were doing,” says Dyck. “Was there something to these ideas about magic or paranormal activity? Because in their LSD experiences they sometimes hallucinated, and so this was a way to make sense of things that, I think, took them to places that they wouldn’t have got to if they had stayed in the lab.”

[icon image] University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, Mike Kesterton
University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections, Mike Kesterton

Due to the socialist reforms taking place in Saskatchewan in the 1940s, intellectuals from throughout North America began coming to the province to observe the societal changes. In part, it was this dynamic historical context and the unique nature of the time and place that enabled women to participate in psychedelic research, Dyck says. Some of the women told Dyck that since there was little to do in cold, isolated Saskatchewan, they would gather together to listen to jazz. Taking and studying LSD was considered to be a highly intellectual endeavour because it provided such a conscious experience.

“It wasn’t like getting opium and you go into a dream state and you’re kind of unconscious. You can talk, you can reflect,” says Dyck.

“These are intellectuals getting together on the Prairies—sometimes looking at northern lights—and really thinking deep thoughts about space and spirituality and Indigenous relations. That’s another thing that I think is really interesting about this research, is they readily recognized that Indigenous people had healing traditions that took advantage, or sort of benefitted, from these same kinds of approaches. So they went and visited Indigenous ceremonies and participated in them to learn.”

Another little-known part of Saskatchewan’s LSD study is its possible links to the CIA. The CIA was said to be interested in testing a variety of drugs as possible truth serums during the Cold War, Dyck notes, and rumours swirled that the CIA was involved in funding the psychedelic research in Weyburn as well.

While direct evidence hasn’t been uncovered to prove the Saskatchewan-CIA connection, it is known that psychedelic research taking place in Montreal at the same time did receive CIA funding. At the very least, Dyck says, the CIA would have been aware of the LSD study in Saskatchewan. It was no secret, after all; the research was published in mainstream academic journals and received media attention.

“In hindsight, it seems like it was a kind of crazy experiment,” she says. “But, at the time, it really wasn’t.”

Miners' wives

Spies and miners’ wives

IN THE 1940s, the wives of hard rock miners in Central and Western Canada began to form auxiliary societies associated with their husbands’ mining union. College of Arts and Science sociologist Dr. Elizabeth Quinlan (BSc’89, Sc’93, PhD’04) spent eight years researching the little-known role that these women’s auxiliaries played in driving social change in Canada.

Quinlan was surprised to discover that the most comprehensive information on the women’s auxiliaries was found in the archival files of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The RCMP had infiltrated the groups and conducted covert surveillance on their members for years, meticulously documenting what they found. Quinlan wondered: “What could be so threatening about these miners’ wives and their bake sales that warranted RCMP surveillance for close to three decades?”

From the RCMP files, she learned the union auxiliaries were far more than social clubs. The women campaigned ceaselessly at the forefront of causes ranging from universal health care to world peace. During the Cold War, the RCMP viewed them as dangerous subversives.

Quinlan’s research was adapted by playwright Jennifer Wynne Webber (BA’86) into the dramatic production With Glowing Hearts: How Ordinary Women Worked Together to Change the World (And Did). The play was named “Best of the Fest” at Saskatoon’s 2016 fringe festival and has since been performed in Nanaimo, B.C., and New York City. An extended version of the show was produced this spring by Dancing Sky Theatre in Meacham, Sask.

Without the secret surveillance of the RCMP, says Quinlan, the story of the miners’ wives might never have come to light.

Wives and children of striking Kirkland Lake miners march in support of their husbands in 1942. City of Greater Sudbury Heritage Images, Solski Collection

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