Obituary: Timothy Leary

Timothy Leary had a knack for getting himself written and talked about. An unrivalled self-promoter, he will chiefly be remembered for his pied-piper role as head of the psychedelic movement of the 1960s. More than anyone else he was responsible for the spread of the unmonitored usage of certain powerful mind-altering drugs by young people, starting in the 1960s. It may not be far-fetched to say that he was also more responsible than anyone else for the swift growth of repressive attitudes and prohibitive laws towards these drugs.

He was born in 1920 in Springfield, Massachusetts to Irish American parents. His father was a dentist, and he once said that his first "turn-on" was with nitric oxide from his father's office. At the age of 19, he upset his Catholic mother by dropping out of Holy Cross College, a Catholic college in Boston, two years before graduation. "The scholastic approach to religion didn't turn me on," he later said. He went on to West Point, but troubled his father, a retired American military officer, by leaving there too, this time after 18 months. He later claimed that his interests were "philosophic rather than militaristic".

Instead, he went to the University of Alabama where he graduated with a BA degree in Psychology in 1942. He enlisted as an Army psychologist, served in a Pennsylvania Hospital until the end of the Second World War, and got a PhD at the University of California at Berkeley. He became director of the Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Oakland and assistant professor at the University of California's School of Medicine in San Francisco (1950- 55).

According to one version of his life, Leary resigned his California jobs because came to believe that traditional psychiatric methods were harming some patients. According to another version, on the morning of his 35th birthday, his wife and the mother of their two children gassed herself in the garage - and that is why he resigned.

He took his children to Europe and, after returning, started working as a clinical lecturer at Harvard. There he evolved a theory of interpersonal behaviour in terms of games, even before Eric Berne's best-selling Games People Play (1961).

In 1960, then aged 39, beside the swimming pool of his rented summer villa in Cuernavaca, Mexico, he ate a handful of odd-looking mushrooms which he had bought from the witch doctor of a nearby village. Within minutes, he was later to recall, he felt himself "being swept over the edge of a sensory niagara into a maelstrom of transcendental visions and hallucinations. The next five hours could be described in many extravagant metaphors, but it was above all and without question the deepest religious experience of my life." On returning to Harvard he began experimenting on himself, his colleagues, and students with psilocybin, a chemical derivative of mushrooms with powerful mind-altering effects. He said he decided to "dedicate" the rest of his life to the "systematic exploration" of this "new instrument".

He and those around him started to experiment with other substances with similar mind-altering effects: morning-glory seeds, peyote, mescaline - and the most powerful substance of all - LSD-25. First sythesised in 1938 by Albert Hofmann, a Swiss biochemist, LSD in minute doses produces astonishing changes in perceptions, emotions and thoughts. Called both a psychotomimetic - that is a mimic of psychosis - and also a psychedelic - mind-revealing - drug, it was to transform the cultural life of the 1960s, especially among young people.

By 1963, Leary and LSD had become embarrassing for Harvard and they dismissed him and his younger colleague Dr Richard Alpert. Leary, Alpert and others organised a privately financed research group called the International Foundation for Internal Freedom (IFIF), and set up a psychedelic study centre in Zihuatenjejo, Mexico. However, anticipating adverse reactions, the Mexican government demanded that they leave the country.

A young New York millionaire, Billy Hitchcock, who believed that Leary's activities were important, turned over to him a 64-room house on a 4,000- acre estate in Millbrook, New York. There Leary established what he called the League for Spritual Discovery. He regarded himself as the founder of a new religion, and the mind-altering substances he used and advocated as "sacraments".

The Millbrook mansion, furnished and decorated like an Eastern temple, became Leary's headquarters, and a shrine and sanctuary for psychedelic migrants from all over the world. It also became a target for what Leary later called "the forces of middle-aged, middle-class" authority. A squad of police investigators headed by G. Gordon Lilly, later to achieve notoriety and a criminal conviction in the Watergate affair, arrested Leary and three other people at Millbrook for possession of marijuana.

A few months earlier customs officials in Laredo, Texas had searched Leary's car as he tried to enter Mexico, and had arrested him after finding a half-ounce of marijuana in the possession of his 18-year-old daughter. He alleged that the marijuana was for "scientific" work and also for "sacramental" use, as he was a practising Hindu. He was fined $30,000 and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

In 1970, helped by the Weathermen organisation and his third wife, he escaped from a California prison and eventually wound up in Algeria, where he took up residence-in-exile with black-power leader Eldridge Cleaver. In 1973 the USA Drug Enforcement Administration rearrested him in Kabul, Afganistan. He was extradited to the United States and imprisoned in California again. He got parole in 1976.

His gift for self-publicity is shown by his remark, aged 45, to Playboy magazine: "An enormous amount of energy from every fibre of your body is released under LSD - especially sexual energy. There is no question that LSD is the most powerful aphrodisiac ever discovered by man." At that time he said he had already taken LSD 311 times. He also told Playboy that he previously had been "a middle-aged man involved in the middle-aged process of dying", that his "joy in life", his "sensual openness", his "creativity" had all been "sliding downhill". Since then, thanks to psychedelic drugs, his life had "been renewed in almost every dimension . . . If you known a person's age, you know what he's going to think and feel about LSD. Psychedelic drugs are the medium of the young. As you move up the age scale - into the thirties, forties and fifties - fewer and fewer people are open to the possibilities that these chemicals offer."

The three inevitable goals of the LSD session are to discover and make love with God, to discover and make love with yourself, and to discover and make love with a woman. You can't make it with yourself unless you've made it with the timeless energy process around you, and you can't make it with a woman until you've made it with yourself.

In a 1968 book, The Politics of Ecstasy, he pronounced:

If you take the game of life seriously, if you take your nervous system seriously, if you take your sense organs seriously, if you take the energy process seriously, you must turn on, tune in, and drop out."

Most recently he was again in the news over the manner of dying. He had arranged with a cryonics organisation for his head to be frozen after his death, presumably with the idea that at some time in the future, technology permitting, his body would be reconstituted and "he" would be reanimated. However, afflicted with prostate cancer and near death, he changed his mind about cryonics. His very last plan was to go out in a blaze of publicity over the Internet.

Morton Schatzman

Timothy Leary, psychologist and author: born Springfield, Massachusetts 22 October 1920; married five times (one son and one daughter deceased); died Los Angeles 31 May 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick