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Humphry Fortescue Osmond (July 1, 1917 - February 6, 2004) was a British psychiatrist, known for coining the word psychedelic and for his groundbreaking research in using psychedelic drugs in medical research. Osmond also explored aspects of the psychology of social environments, in particular how they influenced welfare or recovery within mental institutions.
Osmond was born in Surrey. As a young man he worked for an architect and attended Guy's Hospital Medical School of the University of London. During World War II, Dr. Osmond trained to become a psychiatrist while active as a surgeon-lieutenant in the Navy.
After the War, LSD was among the many new drugs of interest in the medical world. Osmond and his colleague John Smythies had perceived a similarity between the effects of LSD and the early stages of schizophrenia. The psychology community in England was then still dominated by Freudians and unsympathetic to such ideas. In 1951 he and Smythies emigrated to Saskatchewan, Canada to join the staff of a large custodial mental institution, reportedly the largest building between Vancouver and Winnipeg, in the southeastern city of Weyburn. The average length of patient stay at Weyburn was 20 to 25 years.
At Weyburn, Osmond gathered a group of forward-thinking research psychologists, turned the provincial hospital into a design-research laboratory, and conducted a wide variety of patient studies and observations. The best-known is his contribution to the study of psychedelics. In 1952, Osmond related the similarity of mescaline to adrenaline molecules, in a theory which implied that schizophrenia might be a form of self-intoxication caused by one's own body. In 1953 Osmond provided English author Aldous Huxley with a dose of mescaline, and Huxley's enthusiastic book-length trip report called The Doors of Perception - describing the look of the Hollywood Hills and his reactions to artwork while under the influence - is a popular ‘landmark’ text in the study of psychedelic drugs and also in the popular culture surrounding them. Osmond is coyly referred to, but not named, in the book.
Osmond first offered the term "psychedelic" at a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1957. He said the word meant "mind manifesting" and called it "clear, euphonious and uncontaminated by other associations." Huxley had sent Osmond a rhyme containing his own suggested coinage: "To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme." (Thymos means soul in Greek.) Rejecting that, Osmond countered: "To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic."
Osmond is also known for one study in the late 1950s in which he attempted to cure alcoholics with acute LSD treatment, resulting in a claimed 50% success rate. He also treated Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill W. with LSD with positive results. There exists however an alternate version of the events that is told by psychiatrist Abram Hoffer, MD. Osmond and Hoffer not only worked with LSD but also with niacin, which is now called vitamin B3. It is Bill W. himself who made this term popular, after he realized, thanks to the two researchers, the antipsychotic potential of this vitamin when given in supraphysiologic doses. B3 became known as a treatment for alcoholism, as well as for LSD-induced and schizophrenic psychosis Vitamin B-3: Niacin and Its Amide by A. Hoffer, M.D., Ph.D.. The underlying adrenochrome and kryptopyrrole (mauve factor) hypotheses were met with stiff, unsubstantiated opposition. The B3 protocol for alcoholism, despite encouraging results, fell into oblivion amongst the Alcoholics Anonymous organization, which gradually became a faith-based organisation reflecting the orientations of the other AA co-founder.
Osmond was open-minded, curious, and adventurous enough to participate in an all-night Native American Church ceremony in which he and the others present (Plains Indians) ingested peyote in a tipi regarded as sacred space. Osmond published his report on the experience in Tomorrow magazine, Spring 1961. He reported details of the ceremony, the environment in which it took place, the effects of the peyote, the courtesy of his Native hosts, and his conjecture as to the meaning for them of the ceremony and of the Native American Church. None of these things could really be separated from one another, and Osmond wrote appreciatively of the genuine depth of the ceremony for modern Native people, specifically for these Plains Indians.
Beyond his interest in drug- and vitamin-assisted therapeutics, Osmond conducted research into the long-term effects of institutionalization, and began a line of research into what he called "socio-architecture" to improve patient settings, coining the terms "sociofugal" and "sociopedal", starting Robert Sommer's career, and making fundamental contributions to environmental psychology almost by accident.
Later, Osmond became director of the Bureau of Research in Neurology and Psychiatry at the New Jersey Psychiatric Institute in Princeton, and then a professor of psychology at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Dr. Osmond co-wrote eleven books and was widely published throughout his career.
Osmond died of cardiac arrhythmia in 2004.
- Obituary: BMJ. 2004 Mar 20;328(7441):713.
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