Psychedelic Heroes: Timothy Leary

Timothy Francis Leary, Ph.D. was an American psychologist and one of the foremost proponents of the wonders of LSD, among other psychedelics. You may have heard his popular catchphrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, which characterised the hippie movement. 

I Don’t Give a Damn ‘Bout My Reputation

Born on October 22, 1920, an only child, the icon-to-be spent his days alone in Springfield, Massachusetts. Loneliness turned into anger as his father (an Irish- American dentist) left the family when Timothy turned 13. 

This traumatic event in Leary’s life led to a series of truant behaviour. He went to several colleges and wreaked havoc in each. For two years, Leary attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts — where he cut classes, drank, and cultivated a reputation as a ladies man.

Next, Leary went to West Point at his mother’s behest. This didn’t go well, either, as he got caught sneaking in alcohol inside the school. For a long time, Leary’s friends and professors shunned him. 

During World War II, Leary graduated from the University of Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in psychology (earned in 1943 during his time in the Army).

Master’s, Ph.D. and Fatherhood

Leary earned his master’s degree in 1946 at Washington State University, and his Ph.D. in psychology in 1950 at the University of California, Berkeley. He later became an assistant professor at Berkeley, and director of psychiatric research at the Kaiser Family Foundation. He also lectured on psychology at Harvard University, where he met his future psychonaut comrade, Ram Dass.

In 1955, Leary became a single father to a son and a daughter, after his first wife Marianne tragically killed herself. After his wife’s death, Leary gradually lost his faith in traditional psychology.

“If you listen to neurologists and psychiatrists, you’d never fall in love.”

-Timothy Leary

Bad Boys of Harvard

The May 13, 1957 issue of Life Magazine showed the use of psilocybin by the indigenous Mazatec people of Mexico. The article by R. Gordon Wasson [not pictured] was the first to bring psychedelics into the mainstream.

Leary first tried psilocybin mushrooms in 1960, when he set out for Cuernavaca, Mexico with Anthony Russo, his colleague who had taken Psilocybe mexicana on a previous trip. The experience changed Leary’s life forever:

“I learned more about my brain and its possibilities and more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than I had in the preceding fifteen years of studying and doing research in psychology.”

The Harvard Psilocybin Project

When Leary returned to Harvard that fall, he started the Harvard Psilocybin Project with his friends (notably Richard Alpert, later known as Ram Dass). They wanted to figure out how psilocybin affects human subjects by using lab-made psychedelic compounds.

The Project then gave LSD to 300 professors, graduate students, writers, and philosophers. Leary’s dream was for LSD – with the proper dosage, setting, and guidance – to alter behaviour in a mystical, spiritual way… something that 75% of their subjects agreed with. 

Leary also wanted to give alcoholics and reformed convicted criminals a second chance. After a guided trip, 36 prisoners gave up crime for good. To put in perspective, “returnees” go back to prison 80% of the time. In Leary’s project, around 80% of subjects never came back.

Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) at Harvard, 1961. Photo courtesy: 

In May of 1963, Harvard kicked out Leary and Alpert after undergraduates were found dipping into the Project’s stash. However, some sources recall further reasons: Leary was fired for skipping his lectures, while Alpert was fired for giving psilocybin to an undergrad outside of campus. Parents had also told Harvard officials that their kids were being “given drugs”.

Prior to their firing, the Project gathered a ton of public interest… with many curious people turned away due to great demand. Soon, a black market for psychedelics sprouted near the Harvard campus to cater to the “rejects”.

This alarmed Leary and Alpert, who then founded the International Foundation for Internal Freedom in 1962 as a response (this time based in Cambridge).

The Millbrook Era

In 1963, the sibling heirs to the Mellon fortune, namely Peggy, Billy, and Tommy Hitchcock helped get an old mansion for Leary and his fellow psychonauts to use. 

Located in a town called Millbrook, the estate soon became:

“the headquarters of Leary and gang for the better part of five years, a period filled with endless parties, epiphanies, breakdowns, emotional dramas of all sizes, and numerous raids and arrests, many of them on flimsy charges…”

The mansion, as seen in 1967. Photo courtesy: Getty 

In 1966, G. Gordon Liddy raided the Millbrook estate. It was a decisive blow to Leary and his fellow psychonauts, who realized that their dream was over. It was the end of an era. 

“He was a government agent entering our bedroom at midnight. We had every right to shoot him. But I’ve never owned a weapon in my life. I have never had and never will have a gun around.”

The Death of the Mind

In 1964, Leary wrote a book with Ralph Metzner and Richard Alpert called “The Psychedelic Experience”, which was based upon the Tibetan Book of the Dead. 

“Whether you experience heaven or hell, remember that it is your mind which creates them.”

Timothy Leary, “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead”

In the hopes of legalizing LSD based on religious freedom, Leary founded a religion called the League for Spiritual Discovery, with its chief sacrament being LSD. Soon after, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love (aka the “Hippie Mafia”) claimed Leary as their spiritual leader. 

On October 6, 1966, US President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a law which made LSD illegal. As a result, all scientific research programs on LSD — including Leary’s — were halted.

Leary began to tour college campuses until early 1967 in order to replicate the psychedelic trip for audiences. Called “The Death of the Mind”, the one-of-a-kind performance was Leary’s way of spreading his gospel.

At this point, the League of Spiritual Discovery had reached its chosen limit of 360 members. Leary gently told rejected entrants to go form their own psychedelic religions. This led to a pamphlet called “Start Your Own Religion” in 1967.

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

One day in the shower, Leary coined a phrase that would change the lives of 30,000 hippies sprawled across Golden Gate Park in San Francisco:

“Turn on, tune in, drop out.”

The iconic phrase was spoken on January 14, 1967 at the Human Be-In, a gathering of hippies such as the world has never seen.

Poster for the event, which encouraged all to bring families and animals (along with flowers and incense). Photo courtesy: Open Culture

In the late 60’s, Leary moved to California. His popularity led several Hollywood friends to his home. As a matter of fact, Leary’s wedding to Rosemary Woodruff in 1967 was directed by Ted Markland of the hit show, “Bonanza”. Legend has it, all of the guests were on acid.

Circuit Model of Consciousness

In the early 70’s, Leary (along with Brian Barritt) formed his circuit model of consciousness. Also known as “The Seven Tongues of God”, it claimed that the brain, spine, and nerves all consisted of 7 circuits, which triggered 7 levels of awareness.

He then expanded it to include an eighth circuit, which further came to be in 1977 with Leary’s “Exo-Psychology” and Robert Anton Wilson’s “Cosmic Trigger”. 

Leary’s 8 Circuit Model of Consciousness, as drawn on a tarot card. Photo courtesy:

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend…

After years of mental instability, Timothy Leary’s eldest daughter, Susan, hanged herself in jail in 1989. It was a tragic end to a strained relationship with her father, whom Susan blamed for her mother’s suicide. 

Leary’s older son, Jack, had stopped speaking to him since the early 70’s. On top of all this, Leary’s wife, Barbara Leary, split up with him in 1992.

In the years to follow, Leary was often found partying at raves and rock festivals (most notably in a mosh pit at a Smashing Pumpkins gig). The psychonaut hung out with the cool kids, which included his goddaughter, Winona Ryder.

Hollywood star Winona Ryder with her godfather, Timothy Leary.

This rock-and-roll lifestyle quickly proved too much for Leary. In his early 70’s, Leary started to eat less, and abused liquor and prescription drugs. This caused an overdose in late 1993 (which was thought to be bilateral pneumonia at the time).

In January 1995, Leary called his estranged friend Ram Dass with some bad news: Leary had prostate cancer, now inoperable in its late stages. 

Five days before his death in May 1996, Leary reunited with Ram Dass. ‘Twas a mighty good run, indeed, for the old pals. Pioneers of magic and mischief, shaping an entire generation of psychonauts.

The Bad Boys of Harvard, back in action for the last time. 

“Who knows what you might learn from taking a chance on conversation with a stranger? Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle. Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence. Trust your instincts. Do the unexpected. Find the others…”

– Timothy Leary

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