I am currently working on a second book with the working title Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science (forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing in 2024). Based on research in private and public archives in London, NYC, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Washington DC, as well as extensive interviews, the project is a revisionist narrative of a key moment in the history of science: the decades when psychedelic drugs emerged both as a cutting-edge field of scientific research and as a societal preoccupation that has lasted until the present.

Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, an international group of scientists centered around the Macy conferences began to suspect that the therapeutic use of substances like mescaline and LSD could help push society away from feedback loops of aggression and toward peaceful, even utopian ends. Their study was buoyed by the surge of government funding for experimental drug research that followed in the wake of World War II and the advent of the nuclear era. The result was the emergence of a new science of “mind-expanding” drugs that focused not just on treating disease or addressing psychiatric symptoms, but on enlarging the limits of human potential itself. In the process, however, many of the researchers involved became complicit in notoriously unethical scientific research and in the militarism of the Cold War. Others simply became disenchanted. Ultimately, their work revealed the transformative potential of twentieth-century pharmacology — but it also offered a profound case study of the ways that technological utopianism can (and does) go wrong.

If you are interested in the topic of experimental drug research pre-1965, and in particular if you know of any relevant archives or living participants in this story who are open to being interviewed, please get in touch.

Email me at bebreen [at] ucsc [dot] edu or find me on Twitter.

Image credit above: details of audience members in a 1950 Dianetics “auditing” session conducted by L. Ron Hubbard, photographed for The Los Angeles Times. Image credits below: mostly archival photos from my own research, please contact me if you have questions about any of these images.