I am currently working on a second book with the working title Boundless: Experimental Drugs, Cold War Science, and the Future that Never Arrived. 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, when experimental drugs from psychedelics to hormones escaped the laboratory and became a force in society before the 1960s.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, a generation of researchers and writers centered around the Macy conferences began to suspect that newly-developed experimental drugs—psychedelics like LSD, experimental hormones like DES, and a host of lesser-known drugs used in “narcohypnosis”— could help push society away from self-destruction and toward peaceful, even utopian ends. These drugs appeared during the years of rapid technological change immediately before and during World War II, and their study was buoyed by the surge of government funding for experimental research that followed in the wake of Los Alamos. 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 horrifying abuses; others became simply 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.