The Psychedelic Psychiatrist

Posted by Daniel on Jun 2, 2009

The death of Dr. Abram Hoffer in Victoria last week at the age of 91 deprives Canada of one of its leading pioneers of psychiatry.

Hoffer was born in a small Saskatchewan farming community during World War One. His first academic speciality was agricultural science before he switched to medicine, and psychiatry in particular. The 1950s, when he began his career, was an exciting time in Saskatchewan, where CCF Premier Tommy Douglas was leading North America's first socialist government. All sorts of social and intellectual experiments were on the go and Douglas was particularly committed to improving health care. At the same time it was a period when drug therapy achieved new popularity in psychiatry as the application of psychotropic drugs held out the promise of real breakthroughs in the treatment of mental illness.

In this context, Hoffer teamed up with his colleague, Dr. Humphry Osmond, to put psychiatric services in Saskatchewan on the leading edge in the country. Most famously they experimented with the use of LSD, which had only been discovered in 1938. This was pre-Timothy Leary, pre-hippies. Hoffer and Osmond thought that LSD offered real possibilities for insights into how the brain functioned. They also thought that the hallucinogenic experience on an LSD "trip" had real therapeutic benefits for users.

Things didn't work out that way, but Hoffer went on to pioneer megavitamin therapy for schizophrenia, a cause he continued to champion after he moved to Victoria in 1976 and for the rest of his life.