Besides being an icon and pioneer, Timothy Leary was an American psychologist and writer well known for his strong advocacy of psychedelic drugs. Evaluations of Leary are polarized, ranging from bold oracle to publicity hound. He was regarded as “a hero of American consciousness” according to Allen Ginsberg, and Tom Robbins called him a “brave neuronaut”.

Timothy Leary’s journey and transformation from scientist, psychologist and accomplished Harvard University professor to renowned psychedelic and counterculture ‘celebrity’ and passionate evangelist for the mind-expanding potential of hallucinogenic drugs is one of profound awe and intrigue. So much so that by some accounts, Timothy Leary is regarded, even till this day, as the most prolific evangelist for psychedelic drugs in human history.

At the height of the 1960s counterculture, Leary was widely regarded as a prophet who inspired millions of people to explore and embrace the world of psychedelics. He even went on to coin the mantra “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”, which was adopted as a PR slogan and a life philosophy for scores of hippies. If that wasn’t enough, he sparked and featured in various classic works by The Beatles, The Who, Allen Ginsberg and The Moody Blues.

Although Leary passed away in 1996, he left behind a profound legacy and an immense wealth of knowledge and passionate following. With thousands “turning on” to the psychedelic renaissance every year, they will no doubt land on Timothy Leary’s name as one of the people responsible for it all when they dive deeper into the LSD wormhole.
Early Life of Timothy Leary
Before Timothy Leary was an avid and outspoken advocate of mind-altering exploration, before Allen Ginsberg dubbed him “a hero of American consciousness”, before he became a world-renowned psychedelic and counterculture icon, and before he had even begun to dabble in hallucinogens and the power of psychedelic mushrooms, he was something far milder – a psychologist and Harvard Psychology Professor.

Leary received his Ph.D. in psychology from Berkeley University before he went on to become a lecturer and professor at the pristine Harvard University. His early research focused on the interaction of dimensions of personality and social relationships. Beyond that, he also worked as a psychotherapist.

Trained as a clinical psychologist, Leary was 40 years old and a professor at Harvard University when he went on a solo journey to Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1960 and tried psychedelic mushrooms and psilocybin for the very first time.
Timothy Leary’s Harvard Psilocybin Project
Upon his return to Harvard, following his eye-opening Mexico psychedelic experience, he immediately placed an order with Sandoz, which then manufactured LSD and psilocybin (the synthetic version of the chemical in the mushrooms. Psilocybin is also an entheogenic hallucinogen which naturally occurs in certain species of mushrooms.

This marked the beginning of Timothy Leary’s infamous Harvard Psilocybin Project which he created and conducted alongside his close colleague and friend Richard Alpert, now known as Ram Dass. Together with Richard Alpert, Leary included a close circle of volunteer graduate students in his project. While Leary’s Harvard Psilocybin Project was initially solely focussed on psilocybin, he later started experimenting and incorporating LSD.

Timothy Leary also invited acclaimed poet Allen Ginsberg to participate in his studies of the newly synthesized chemical psilocybin. The invitation to Ginsberg was one of numerous propositions and attempts made by Leary to recruit poets and artists for his experiments. After Ginsberg’s visit, he offered to introduce Leary to several of his interested friends. This group of influential individuals included the publisher of Grove Books, Barney Rosset, the poets LeRoi Jones (later known Amiri Baraka), Muriel Rukeyser, and Robert Lowell, the painters Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and the jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.

The controversial Harvard Psilocybin Project, which was conducted between 1960 and 1962, sought to investigate and understand how the human mind interacted with hallucinatory drugs like LSD and psilocybin (the main active ingredient in magic mushrooms), and document its effects on human consciousness by administering it to volunteer subjects and recording their real-time, in-the-moments reactions and descriptions of the experience. Additionally, the study aimed to demonstrate the mystical and therapeutic applications of psychedelics and its potentially far-reaching benefits across multiple domains and realms. At the time of Leary and Alpert’s research at Harvard, both LSD and psilocybin were legal in the United States.

Following a string of events and claims, Timothy Leary along with Richard Alpert were both dismissed/fired from Harvard University in 1963 for allegedly proselytizing the virtues of using LSD as well as for their lenient and lax, if not unscientific, approach to experimentation. This brought the Harvard Psilocybin Project to an abrupt end. The scientific legitimacy and ethics of their entire research project and study were also questioned by other Harvard faculty members and administrators based on various claims, red flags, and areas of concern, especially those pertaining to the safety of Leary and Alpert’s research subjects.

They strongly critiqued the rigor of their unorthodox methodology, particularly with regards to the fact that the researchers (AKA Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert) conducted their studies and investigations when they too were under the influence of psilocybin – Meaning that both Leary and Alpert took psychedelics along with the research subjects.

Their colleagues went on to question and challenge the scientific merit of their research, as well as the seemingly cavalier attitude with which it was carried out, referring to the poorly controlled conditions, and non-random selection of subjects, among other factors. Editorials printed in the Harvard Crimson further accused Alpert and Leary of not merely researching psychotropic drugs but actively promoting their recreational use. There were also additional allegations made against Leary and Alpert, claiming that they had coerced students into joining the project and pressured them into taking hallucinogens.  However, these unfavourable claims that Leary compelled, and pressured unwilling students were refuted and disproved by at least one of Leary’s students, Robert Thurman.

Life Post-Harvard Psilocybin Project
After being dismissed from Harvard University in 1963, Timothy Leary took his studies and moved what was still nominally a research institution to the Millbrook Estate, a 64-room mansion in upstate New York, with assistance from the heirs to the Mellon fortune. This is where Leary, together with a communal group, freely experimented with LSD and various spiritual and psychedelic practices.

Although Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were both banished from academia due to being discredited by their lack of scientific rigor and failure to observe established research guidelines, it was far from the end for their public lives as they were about to soar to icon status. After leaving Harvard, Leary was propelled right into pop culture fame and glory and sealed his status as an icon of the counterculture revolution. In fact, both Leary and Alpert went on to become highly influential and widely renowned icons of the psychedelic drug, counterculture, and human potential movement.

Timothy Leary’s Impact & Influence on the Psychedelic Counterculture
Despite being publicly dismissed from Harvard University, Timothy Leary never strayed from his purpose and path, even till the very end. Leary persisted to believe in the profound transformational power of psychedelics. He firmly believed that LSD and psychedelics showed exceptional promise and potential for therapeutic use in psychiatry, and strongly sensed that psychedelics could be used as medicine and that they could cure trauma and PTSD.

As Leary used LSD himself, he developed a philosophy of mind expansion and personal truth, which only encouraged him to further promote the use of psychedelics publicly. Ultimately resulting in him becoming one of the most well-known and celebrated figures and icons of the counterculture of the 1960s.

It wasn’t until 1966, after several run-ins with the law, that Leary started earning his reputation as the “pied piper of LSD,” cultivating the media, saying things like, “To learn how to use your head, you have to go out of your mind,” and “Turn on, tune in, and drop out” – One of Timothy Leary’s wildly famous slogans. In addition to Leary’s Popularized catchphrase “turn on, tune in, drop out”, he also coined the terms “set and setting”, and “think for yourself and question authority” – all of which are still used till this very day.

By the end of his life (he died in 1966), Timothy Leary had left a sizeable mark on the world of psychedelics as a whole as well as on American culture. He had influenced psychedelic rock, the hippie trail, spiritual seekers, Steve Jobs, Silicon Valley, painters, poets, and the very scientists leading the psychedelic renaissance today. Leary’s impact and influence was without a doubt far-reaching and powerful.

Although Timothy Leary was highly polarised and scrutinised, and even in some ways condemned, during the 1960’s for his research, personal use, and experimentation with LSD, psilocybin, and various psychedelics as well as for his belief that LSD and psychedelics showed exceptional promise, far-reaching benefits, and incredible potential for therapeutic use in psychiatry, there has been a remarkable recent resurgence of scientific research on psychedelic drugs. Scientists, researchers, and passionate ‘psychonauts’ have become increasingly interested once again in these drugs both for what they could reveal about the nature of human consciousness and for their profound and potentially life-altering spiritual, physical and mental health benefits, especially as it pertains to their ability to help people with depression and anxiety.

While recent years have been marked by increased intrigue, investigation, and research into psychedelics and its potential, it was in actual fact Timothy Leary that pioneered this research. Despite Leary being the forerunner of these initial findings and research, some of those working on it today blame him for ruining it for everybody else. They claim that his later antics precipitated a backlash that criminalized psychedelics and made it impossible to do any serious research on them for decades. Many also blame the federal ban on psychedelics, in 1970, at least in part, on the role Leary played in feeding a moral panic.

Despite everything, Timothy Leary’s impact is everlasting. He was the self-proclaimed “high priest” of the 1960s psychedelic counterculture, an integral pioneer in the world of psychedelics, and a highly passionate and praised icon of mind-expanding 60s psychedelia.

Leary’s last book before he died was ‘Chaos and Cyber Culture’, published in 1994. In it he wrote: “The time has come to talk cheerfully and joke sassily about personal responsibility for managing the dying process.” His book Design for Dying, which tried to give a new perspective on death and dying, was published posthumously. Leary wrote about his belief that death is “a merging with the entire life process”