Basel in the Spotlight: The City That Learned to Love LSD

Seventy-five years ago, the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann experienced the world’s first full-blown LSD trip on his way home from his lab in Basel. Hofmann had been researching the ergot fungus, hoping to develop a drug to treat fatigue. Among the compounds he was analysing was lysergic acid – Lysergsäure-Diethylamid in German, also known as LSD. On Friday 16 April 1943, Hofmann left the lab feeling a little dizzy: “I lay down and had these wonderful dreams – I saw every thought as an image,” he said in an interview for his 100th birthday. The chemist concluded that he had accidentally touched the substance, and was intrigued by its powerful effect.

Three days later, on 19 April, he returned to the lab and swallowed a tiny amount just to see what would happen: “As it later turned out, it was five times too much and gave me a horror trip.” He asked an assistant to take him home by bicycle, and Basel transformed into a panorama of hellish and heavenly visions. The bike seemed to freeze to the spot; a friendly neighbour turned into an evil witch. Hours later, Hofmann felt wonderful. “LSD called me, I didn’t seek it out,” he recalled. “It came to me.”

Loving LSD

Today, Basel wears its psychedelic history with pride. Locals point out that the city has for centuries served as a safe haven for rebels and free thinkers. An exhibition at Basel’s Kunstmuseum celebrates Hofmann’s discovery in the context of the city’s creative history, pairing it with nightmarish, horror trip-like prints by Old Masters such as Bruegel. Thousands of visitors are expected to flock to Basel to celebrate “Bicycle Day”, as 19 April is known among the cognoscenti. And researchers are studying LSD’s medical properties again, shrugging off decades of stigma.

Switzerland’s relatively permissive regulations around researching LSD have helped the renewed effort to understand its medical potential. New methods, including advanced brain scanners, also give unprecedented insights into its effects. One study by the Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser has recently shown that LSD can be used to reduce a sense of existential fear. Its capacity to induce feelings of deep bliss raise the prospect of therapeutic uses, for example to treat depression.

“LSD is a Baseler product,” said Matthias Liechti, a clinical pharmacologist at University Hospital Basel, who leads a research project on the effects of LSD on the human mind and body. “It’s tied to Basel’s history as a centre of pharmacology and innovation.”

Sandoz, the chemicals company in whose labs Hofmann discovered LSD, has since merged with its rival, Ciba, to create the chemicals giant Novartis. In general the chemicals and pharma business has shaped urban life in Basel, most recently through the Novartis Campus, a $2.3bn research and development centre in the St Johann neighbourhood, with a centrepiece designed by Frank Gehry. The campus has attracted global talent, but some locals warn that an influx of wealthy newcomers is pushing up prices and crowding out poorer locals. “From working-class area to hip chemistry-corner,” wrote local journalist Andreas Schwald about the rapidly changing neighbourhood last year. He points out that while the area offers a bustling, interesting mix of students and expats, cheap housing for poorer families is under threat. Overall, rents in Basel have risen 15% over the past decade, pushing up the general cost of living – which is rising faster than anywhere else in Switzerland.

Basel in numbers

250 micrograms – the amount of LSD Hofmann ingested before his bike trip

200 micrograms – the amount of LSD participants take in the study at University Hospital Basel

19 - percentage of Baselers who “regularly ride bikes”, according to a survey. The Swiss national average is 7-8%.

40 – number of museums in Basel, which has Switzerland’s highest museum density

3 - percentage rise in housing costs (including rent and heating) in Basel over the last two years

35 – percentage of foreigners living in Basel

History in 100 words

Basilia was first mentioned in 374 CE, having started as a small Celtic settlement by the Rhine. Its reputation as an innovation hub began in 1460, with the founding of Basel University, Switzerland’s oldest, which in 1661 acquired the world’s first public art collection – setting Basel’s other big theme, fine art. During the Reformation, silk dyers arrived, laying the foundation for Basel’s pharmaceutical and chemicals companies. In 1897, Basel hosted the First Zionist Congress under Theodor Herzl. In 1996, Sandoz – in whose labs Hofmann discovered LSD – and its rival Ciba merged to create the chemicals giant Novartis.

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