On This Day … 01 July

People (Births)

  • 1818 – Karl von Vierordt, German physician, psychologist and academic (d. 1884).
  • 1917 – Humphry Osmond, English-American lieutenant and psychiatrist (d. 2004)

Karl von Vierordt

Karl von Vierordt (01 July 1818 to 22 November 1884) was a German physiologist.

Vierordt was born in Lahr, Baden. He studied at the universities of Berlin, Göttingen, Vienna, and Heidelberg, and began a practice in Karlsruhe in 1842. In 1849 he became a professor of theoretical medicine at the University of Tübingen, and in 1853 a professor of physiology.

Vierordt developed techniques and tools for the monitoring of blood circulation. He is credited with the construction of an early “hemotachometer”, an apparatus for monitoring the velocity of blood flow. In 1854, he created a device called a sphygmograph, a mechanism consisting of weights and levers used to estimate blood pressure, and considered to be a forerunner of the modern sphygmomanometer. One of his better known written works was a treatise on the arterial pulse, titled Die Lehre vom Arterienpuls in gesunden und kranken Zuständen.

Vierordt also made substantial contributions to the psychology of time perception, via his book (published in 1868) Der Zeitsinn nach Versuchen, “The experimental study of the time sense”. This reported a large number of experiments on the perception of duration, with the time sense being considered a “general sense” along with the perception of space, in contrast to the “special senses” such as vision and hearing. Included in this book is discussion of, and evidence for, what has come to be known as Vierordt’s Law: roughly the proposition that short durations tend to be overestimated, while long durations tend to be underestimated.

Between these two extremes is a “point of indifference” where the “time sensation”, in Vierordt’s terminology, corresponds exactly to physical time. However, the 1868 book does much more than report this “law” and contains extensive discussions of different methods used to measure duration perception, as well as different sorts of errors that can occur.

Although Vierordt was not the first person to carry out experiments on time perception, his 1868 book involved much more extensive experimentation and discussion than had been carried out until then.

He died in Tübingen, aged 66.

Humphrey Osmond

Humphry Fortescue Osmond (01 July 1917 to 06 February 2004) was an English psychiatrist who expatriated to Canada, then moved to work in the United States. He is known for inventing the word psychedelic and for his research into interesting and useful applications for psychedelic drugs. Osmond also explored aspects of the psychology of social environments, in particular how they influenced welfare or recovery in mental institutions.

As a young man, he worked for an architect and attended Guy’s Hospital Medical School at King’s College London. While active as a surgeon-lieutenant in the Navy during World War II, Osmond trained to become a psychiatrist.

Work with Psychedelics

After the war, Osmond joined the psychiatric unit at St George’s Hospital, London where he rose to become senior registrar. His time at the hospital was to prove pivotal in three respects: firstly it was where he met his wife Amy “Jane” Roffey who was working there as a nurse, secondly he met Dr John Smythies who was to become one of his major collaborators, and thirdly he first encountered the drugs that would become associated with his name (and his with theirs): LSD and mescaline. While researching the drugs at St George’s, Osmond noticed that they produced similar effects to schizophrenia and he became convinced that the disease was caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. These ideas were not well received amongst the psychiatric community in London at the time. In 1951, Osmond and Smythies moved to Saskatchewan, Canada to join the staff of the Weyburn Mental Hospital in the southeastern city of Weyburn, Saskatchewan.

At Weyburn, Osmond recruited a group of research psychologists to turn the hospital into a design-research laboratory. There, he conducted a wide variety of patient studies and observations using hallucinogenic drugs, collaborating with Abram Hoffer and others. 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. He collected the biographies of recovered schizophrenics, and he held that psychiatrists can only understand the schizophrenic by understanding the rational way the mind makes sense of distorted perceptions. He pursued this idea with passion, exploring all avenues to gain insight into the shattered perceptions of schizophrenia, holding that the illness arises primarily from distortions of perception. Yet during the same period, Osmond became aware of the potential of psychedelics to foster mind-expanding and mystical experiences.

In 1953, English-born Aldous Huxley was long-since a renowned poet and playwright who, in his twenties, had gone on to achieve success and acclaim as a novelist and widely published essayist. He had lived in the US for well over a decade and gained some experience screenwriting for Hollywood films. Huxley had initiated a correspondence with Osmond. In one letter, Huxley lamented that contemporary education seemed typically to have the unintended consequence of constricting the minds of the educated – close the minds of students, that is, to inspiration and to many things other than material success and consumerism. In their exchange of letters, Huxley asked Osmond if he would be kind enough to supply a dose of mescaline.

In May of that year, Osmond travelled to the Los Angeles area for a conference and, while there, provided Huxley with the requested dose of mescaline and supervised the ensuing experience in the author’s home neighbourhood. As a result of his experience, Huxley produced an enthusiastic book called The Doors of Perception, describing the look of the Hollywood Hills and his responses to artwork while under the influence. Osmond’s name appears in four footnotes in the early pages of the book (in references to articles Osmond had written regarding medicinal use of hallucinogenic drugs).

Osmond was respected and trusted enough that in 1955 he was approached by Christopher Mayhew (later, Baron Mayhew), an English politician, and guided Mayhew through a mescaline trip that was filmed for broadcast by the BBC.

Osmond and Abram Hoffer were taught a way to “maximize the LSD experience” by the influential layman Al Hubbard, who came to Weyburn. Thereafter they adopted some of Hubbard’s methods.

Humphry Osmond first proposed the term “psychedelic” at a meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1956. He said the word meant “mind manifesting” (from “mind”, ψυχή (psyche), and “manifest”, δήλος (delos)) and called it “clear, euphonious and uncontaminated by other associations.” Huxley had sent Osmond a rhyme containing his own suggested invented word: “To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gram of phanerothyme” (θυμός (thymos) meaning ‘spiritedness’ in Ancient Greek.) Osmond countered with “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic” (Alternative version: To fall in Hell or soar angelic / You’ll need a pinch of psychedelic).

Osmond is also known for a study in the late 1950s in which he attempted to cure alcoholics with LSD. He claimed to have achieved a fifty-percent success rate. Osmond noticed that some drinkers were only able to give up drinking after an episode of delirium tremens and tried to replicate this state in patients through giving them high doses of the drug. This came to be known as the psychedelic treatment model, contrasted to the psycholytic model that used low doses to help release repressed material from the mind which it was hoped would help the psychotherapeutic process. One of Osmond’s patients during this time was Bill W., co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. However, what with the growing reputation for psychedelics’ potential for enabling spiritual insight, rather than a delirium tremens type of experience, Bill W. hoped to recapture a mystical state of consciousness that he had experienced, years earlier, without a drug.

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