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Harvard Psilocybin Project

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The Harvard Psilocybin Project was a series of loose experiments in psychology conducted by Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert. The experiments began some time in 1960 and lasted until March of 1962, when other professors in the Harvard Center for Research in Personality raised concerns about the legitimacy and safety of the experiments in an internal meeting.

These concerns were then printed in the Harvard Crimson and the publicity that followed resulted in the end of the official experiments, an investigation by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health that was eventually dropped, and the firing of Leary and Alpert.

Leary and Alpert’s experiments were part of their personal discovery and advocacy of psychedelics. As such, their use of psilocybin and other psychedelics ranged from the academically sound and above board Concord Prison Experiment, in which inmates were given psilocybin in an effort to reduce recidivism, to frequent personal use.

The Marsh Chapel Experiment, an example of the Project's activities, was run by a Harvard Divinity School graduate student under Leary's supervision. Boston area graduate divinity students were administered psilocybin as a part of a study designed to determine if the drug could facilitate the experience of profound religious states, and nine out of the ten divinity students reported such experiences. Leary's active participation in the experiment and its effects on Reverend Randall Laakko (who, at the time, was a student at the Divinity School) are depicted in a segment of a BBC video, which can be viewed here.

At the time only Mescaline and the Peyote cactus were illegal, it would be five years until LSD and psilocybin were made illegal. Both Leary and Alpert had been rising academic stars until their battles with Harvard and their advocacy of the use of psychedelics made them major figures in the nascent 1960s counterculture]].

Huston Smith's last work, Cleansing the Doors of Perception, describes the Harvard Project in which he participated in the early 1960s as a serious, conscientious, mature attempt to raise awareness around entheogenic substances. Of the members of the subgroup in which Smith took part, Leary is not listed.

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