In the 1960s, a one-time Harvard researcher helped transform psychedelic substances into counterculture mainstays. Though even ancient cultures had used plants to produce hallucinogenic experiences, Timothy Leary gave psilocybin mushrooms and LSD a particular political and creative meaning. Ultimately, the drug-induced trips of the ’60s yielded a new aesthetic that still resounds throughout artistic practices today.
Leary, who’s associated with the iconic mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out,” was born in 1920 and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a Ph.D. in psychology. He joined Harvard’s faculty in 1959, and a year later, at the age of 40, tried psilocybin mushrooms (“magic mushrooms”) for the first time. (Harvard eventually fired him.)
The middle-aged academic was so enthusiastic about the experience and its salubrious potential that he became, perhaps, psychedelic drugs’ greatest evangelist in the country, advocating their powers to aid “mind expansion.” As he infiltrated American bohemia, Leary helped establish our contemporary conception of creativity as a component of well-being, a quality to be unlocked by an open, receptive mind.
, who met Leary once, doesn’t quite agree. “Creativity, who cares about creativity?” he told Artsy
recently. “Art was even in the caves 50,000 years ago. Creativity has been part of humanity since the beginning. Timothy Leary did not invent it or change it. It comes from heaven.”