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Far out – Humphrey Osmond, R.I.P.

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Osmond died at 86 on February 6.

He invented the word “psychedelic” after talking with Aldous Huxley about the latter’s experiences with mescaline. Huxley suggested the word “phanerothyme,” from Greek words meaning “to show” and “the spirit.” Osmond instead chose “psychedelic,” from the Greek for mind or soul and a form of the verb “to show,” deloun.

He told the New York Academy of Sciences in 1957, “I have tried to find an appropriate name for the agents under discussion; a name that will include the concepts of enriching the mind and enlarging the vision…. My choice, because it is clear, euphonious, and uncontaminated by other associations, is psychedelic, mind-manifesting.”

Osmond, who disapproved of Timothy Leary and his followers, said, “Drugs are mysterious, dangerous substances and must be treated respectfully.”

Born in England, he was doing his residency in psychiatry at St. George’s Hospital in London when he read about Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann’s pioneering work on the effects of LSD. Starting in the late 1940s, he worked on a theory that mind-altering substances mirror the perceptions of a schizophrenic.

He admininstered mescaline and LSD to normal volunteers – including doctors – so they could describe their experiences while drugged.

Finding little support for his work, he left England and moved to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Canada. There, he gained financial support for his research from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Among those who followed his work closely was Aldous Huxley, who asked if he could be a test subject. Osmond agreed, albeit reluctantly; he later said he did not “relish the possibility, however remote, of finding a small but discreditable niche in literary history as the man who drove Aldous Huxley mad.”

Huxley found his experiences mystical and revelatory, and wrote about them in his 1954 book, “The Doors of Perception.” I read it years ago, and found it excellent.

“Psychedelic” is truly a great word, the coinage of genius.

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