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Tripped out on the Prairies

Weyburn, Saskatchewan was once the centre of LSD research, medical historian finds.

BY MARK CARDWELL | AUG 07 2012

University of Saskatchewan history professor Erika Dyck says it was a future colleague who turned her on to LSD, so to speak.

It happened a decade ago when Dr. Dyck, then a doctoral candidate in the history of medicine at McMaster University, was asked to do some research by U of S historian Larry Stewart, one of her former professors. He was doing a project on the history of therapeutic experimentation with drugs in England, recalls Dr. Dyck, who holds the Canada Research Chair in the History of Medicine at the U of S. “Because I was in Ontario, he asked me to look around and see what I could find out about experimentation in Canada.”

She hit a mother lode of information at the medical history library at the University of Toronto: hundreds of articles in medical journals about serious research using LSD in several Western countries, including Canada, in the 1950s. “I had no idea to what extent LSD had been used experimentally and for therapeutic reasons to treat schizophrenia and even alcoholism,” says Dr. Dyck.

Even more amazing, however, was her discovery that a now-demolished asylum on the outskirts of Weyburn, Saskatchewan had been ground zero for international LSD research. “I grew up in Saskatchewan and I had never even heard of it,” she says. “So I kept digging.”

The result was her dissertation, which was recently published for the second time as a book, Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD on the Canadian Prairies, by the University of Manitoba Press. (It was first published by John Hopkins University Press in 2008.) The book’s focus is on the work of two Saskatchewan-based psychiatrists, Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond (who coined the term psychedelic), who were trying to revolutionize the treatment of mental illness through the use of hallucinogenic drugs like mescaline and lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. “They were engaged in radical psycho-pharmacological therapy that attracted a lot of international attention before LSD became part of the 1960s counterculture and lost credibility.”

Much of that experimentation was carried out at the Souris Valley Mental Health Hospital, reportedly the largest building in the British Commonwealth when it opened in 1921. In its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s, the building treated some 2,500 patients from the province. Besides doing archival research, Dr. Dyck interviewed former staff members for her thesis. She says the story provides an example of how out-of-the-way research centres can make profound contributions. “LSD research wasn’t a marginal event. It was taken quite seriously [and] the work at Weyburn was cutting edge.”

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