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The Harvard Psychedelic Club summary

Don Lattin

How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America

4.2 (187 ratings)
18 mins

Brief summary

"The Harvard Psychedelic Club" by Don Lattin is a fascinating account of the formation and impact of a group of Harvard scholars in the 1960s, who were instrumental in launching the psychedelic movement. The book provides an insightful look into the cultural and personal influences that shaped the minds of this group and their contribution to the counterculture of the era.

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    The Harvard Psychedelic Club
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    A Meeting of the Minds at Harvard University

    In some ways Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were alike. They were both born in Massachusetts, and they both earned doctorates in psychology that led them to becoming Harvard University professors. But in other, very crucial ways, they were also quite different.

    Alpert was a sexually conflicted young man from an upper class Jewish background. His father wanted him to be a doctor, but Alpert was always drawn to psychology. While he struggled academically for a while, he eventually pulled himself together and got accepted into a doctorate program at Stanford University. This was around 1958, and given the university’s close proximity to San Francisco, Alpert was introduced to the nascent counterculture scene and its drug of choice at the time, marijuana.

    Not long afterward, Alpert got a job working at a new program at Harvard University called the Center for Personality Research – part of the school’s Department of Social Relations. The man who got Alpert that job, David McClelland, was also the man who brought Timothy Leary to Harvard.

    Leary was born into a chaotic, alcoholic family. After being accepted into the West Point military academy, his own drinking nearly got him kicked out. He managed to get an honorable discharge from the Army before he immersed himself in the field of psychology, eventually earning a doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley in 1950.

    For a while, Leary settled into a job at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, California and produced a well-respected book in 1957 called The Interpersonal Diagnosis of Personality. Leary’s star was on the rise, but at the same time his personal life was in tatters. 

    His first wife committed suicide in 1955 and, after publishing his book, he took his kids to Europe in 1958. They ended up in Florence, but Leary was on the verge of becoming penniless when, in a stroke of luck, he was introduced to David McClelland, who just happened to be vacationing in Italy at the time. McClelland had read Leary’s book and thought he would be a fantastic addition to the team at Harvard’s Center for Personality Research.

    This is how, in the fall of 1959, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert came to be colleagues at Harvard, working out of a drafty old mansion in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    However, before Leary had left Italy, an old friend from UC Berkeley had stopped by and told him about an amazing experience he had after taking “magic mushrooms” in Mexico. Leary was skeptical, but in the summer of 1960, he traveled to Mexico to find out for himself.

    Sure enough, his friend wasn't exaggerating. After taking the mushrooms, Leary went on an expansive journey. Around him were undulating, swirling plants, bejeweled caverns, temples and flaming emeralds. It was life-changing. He came back to Harvard and immediately pushed for McClellan to start up a new research project on the potential for these mushrooms – or, more precisely, the active ingredient: psilocybin.

    A few months afterward, Alpert had his first trip, and he too was amazed by the existential experience. He saw different versions of himself made manifest before him. There was also a moment where he left his body, looked down on himself sitting on the couch, and felt some serious existential panic. But then, the fear turned to compassion and joy, and he felt, for the first time, as though he knew his true soul. He finally understood who he was. Alpert then ran out of Leary’s house and danced blissfully in the snow.

    It was the winter of 1960 when Alpert had this initial experience. By that time, Leary had already brought in some others, including the poet Allen Ginsberg, his friend, the writer William S. Burroughs, and the jazz musician Maynard Ferguson.

    But there was one other important figure on board in those early days: Huston Smith, a professor from the neighboring college, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Smith was on his own unique journey as well. He was born in China to parents who were Methodist missionaries. But despite his strict religious upbringing he had an insatiably curious mind. In the 1950s, he became one of the pioneering figures in the field of comparative religion. His 1958 book The World’s Religions quickly became a fundamental text for courses on religious studies. He even hosted a series of popular television shows in the mid-to-late 50s.

    Smith was also friends with Aldous Huxley, a popular British writer and philosopher whose research on theology and mysticism was a big influence on Smith. In 1954, Huxley would publish The Doors of Perception, a book that chronicled his own experiments with the psychedelic drug mescaline, and which served as a touchstone for just about everyone involved in the Harvard experiments.

    Smith told Huxley about his interest in having the kind of drug-induced spiritual experience that the author had written about. Huxley told Smith that he should get in touch with Leary. After all, he was working right down the street from MIT.

    Smith did just that. And when he took the psilocybin pill, he found the kind of awe-inspiring, enlightening experience he was looking for. So he quickly signed up to become a third leader in the project over the next few years.

    For now, Smith, Leary and Alpert were more or less on the same page when it came to their views on how these drugs could potentially benefit society – in the realm of psychology, spirituality, or both. But as we’ll see in the next sections, these views would soon diverge.

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    What is The Harvard Psychedelic Club about?

    The Harvard Psychedelic Club (2010) tells the remarkable story of four individuals, Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil. Each of these men crossed paths at Harvard University in the early 1960s, where experiments were ongoing involving the consciousness-expanding effects of psychedelic substances. Each went on to explore different paths during the counterculture movement that followed.

    The Harvard Psychedelic Club Review

    The Harvard Psychedelic Club (2010) delves into the intertwined lives of four men who shaped the psychedelic movement of the 1960s. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • With its meticulously researched narrative, it provides a fascinating exploration of the cultural and political backdrop that birthed the psychedelic revolution.
    • Through intimate portraits of Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Andrew Weil, and Huston Smith, the book offers a deeper understanding of their contributions to psychological and spiritual exploration.
    • By delving into their personal struggles, the book humanizes these larger-than-life figures, creating compelling character studies that keep readers engaged from start to finish.

    Who should read The Harvard Psychedelic Club?

    • Spiritual seekers
    • People interested in 1960s culture
    • Anyone curious about psychedelic drugs

    About the Author

    Don Lattin is an author who often writes about topics involving religion and spirituality. His previous books include Jesus Freaks and Shopping For Faith. He’s also contributed to such television programs as Nightline, Good Morning America, and Dateline.

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    The Harvard Psychedelic Club FAQs 

    What is the main message of The Harvard Psychedelic Club?

    The main message of The Harvard Psychedelic Club is the exploration of the role psychedelics played in shaping the counterculture of the 1960s.

    How long does it take to read The Harvard Psychedelic Club?

    The reading time for The Harvard Psychedelic Club varies depending on the reader's speed. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is The Harvard Psychedelic Club a good book? Is it worth reading?

    The Harvard Psychedelic Club is a captivating book that delves into the lives of the individuals who shaped the psychedelic movement. It offers a fascinating exploration of their beliefs and motivations, making it worth reading for anyone interested in that era.

    Who is the author of The Harvard Psychedelic Club?

    The author of The Harvard Psychedelic Club is Don Lattin.

    What to read after The Harvard Psychedelic Club?

    If you're wondering what to read next after The Harvard Psychedelic Club, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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    • The Immortality Key by Brian C. Muraresku
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