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These Are the Female Pioneers of Psychedelics

Meet the women who risked their credibility and safety to research psychedelic treatment and therapy long before they shared any sense of equal rights.

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Let’s talk about women who were ahead of their time, the curious, the risk-takers. These are women who paid prices they should never have had to. I’m humbled to stand upon their shoulders and their work, and I wish I could tell everyone about them. Every person seated next to me on the plane, train, or bypassing me on the sidewalk. But work in psychedelics is not a conversation for everyone. However, for those willing to listen and learn, I’d come with my curveball–that we’re all hallucinating. Our lives are, as Seth Anil explains it, one big controlled hallucination. What our brains see and process is only part of the picture, unique to each of us. You can see numerous geometric sight tests to prove this concept, but I’ll use an everyday one. I had a blue, bright blue face mask on my counter the other day, and every time I passed it, my brain told me it was my phone alighting with a new message. We move too quickly to perceive the whole picture, and we fill in the blanks with expectations, hopes, and learned experiences. Why, then, should enhancing that perception be anything short of miraculous–or healing?

In my last article, I discussed the barriers women faced in the industry’s history, including the severe prices women like Maria Sabina had to pay for their work. But there’s plenty more in addition to Sabina, so let’s continue the discussion by spotlighting more women pioneers of psychedelics. 

 

Valentina Wasson

While men in research relied heavily on their wives for support and documentation, Valentina Wasson was often leading rather than assisting. She first introduced R. Gordon Wasson to the world of mushrooms, though her husband often receives credit for bringing mushrooms to public attention in America. She then led the excursion that introduced Westerners to Maria Sabina and bravely published the account of her mushroom trip. 

Perhaps the most notable of Valentina’s contributions was creating a connection between psilocybin and various treatments. It was after she experienced her spiritual healing in Sabina’s velada that she proposed psilocybin to treat pain associated with alcoholism, narcotic addiction, and mental disorders and end-of-life care. Later this treatment was reinforced by Laura Huxley, Joan Halifax, and many innovative researchers today.

Valentina Wasson helped build the cultural bridge that would lead to our current and developing understanding of psilocybin’s therapeutic benefits. Her groundbreaking interview is among many firsthand accounts that fueled psychedelic research.

 

Mabel Dodge Luhan and Adelle Davis

Part of the pioneer’s legacy is delivered via documentation. And when it comes to women pioneers in this field, we owe a nod to Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy socialite, and the first woman to document a peyote trip. Sure, she had status on her side, yet writing about controversial topics in this era–specifically as a woman–took significant courage. Indeed, the societal consequences for such behavior in Manhattan, 1914 was enough pressure for Mabel to move to Mexico. There, she would start a literary community and continue peyote trips unthreatened by U.S. laws.

Related: Miley Cyrus Says Ayahuasca Changed Her Life

Equally important when it comes to documentation is Adelle Davis, a writer, and leading American nutritionist throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. She was the first woman to publish (although in her pen name, Jane Dunlap) a full-length book on her LSD experiences, “Exploring Inner Space” (1961). The book covered five LSD experiences under psychiatrist supervision and insisted on the drug’s ability to help Davis overcome writer’s block, improve her mood, and enhance relationships with her family.

Although the food and health industry disagreed with Davis’ nutritional works, her criticism of and her attachment to LSD as a means to “meet God” had a profound influence.

 

Laura Huxley, Joan Halifax, and Eileen J. Garret

Talk about a subject that’ll render your airplane seatmate uncomfortable–let’s discuss psychedelics and death. Not accidental, death mind you, instead a means to add beauty and comfort to the profound unknown. That’s what Laura Huxley helped pioneer by administering LSD to assist the dying. Throughout their marriage, Laura became an integral partner in Aldous Huxley’s psychedelic experiments. Upon Aldous’ final hours, Laura proposed the drug to decrease his anxiety and assist in his transition to the unknown. In the hours leading up to what was referred to by the physicians present as the “most beautiful death,” Laura gave Aldous 100 micrograms of LSD.

Connected to Laura Huxley’s notion of “Dying Healthy,” is the work of American Zen Buddhist Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D. Halifax is known for her work on an LSD research project with terminally-ill cancer patients and a co-authored book, “The Human Encounter with Death.” Halifax has stated that her work is based on transforming the experiences of clinicians, patients, and the institutions that serve dying people. Throughout her career, Halifax maintains that LSD can help patients change their views of death. For one patient, in particular, she recounts how, “In the end, he was much more accepting of his mortality as his death drew near.” 

Psychedelics are considerably associated with “near-death,” paranormal, and inexplicable phenomena that coincide with parapsychology. For medium Eileen Garret, Director of the Parapsychology Foundation, LSD’s uses don’t stop at death. Garret advocates for LSD’s ability in investigating parapsychological phenomena, finding it a “very serious method by which one reaches the deep levels of the unconscious self.”

 

Mary Barnard

As noted, many cultures have used psychedelics for sacred purposes, yet North American culture has dismissed such usage by and large. That’s where we thank Mary Barnard, an American poet best known for her translation of Sappho’s works. Barnard’s insights reinforce the “sacred” purposes of psychedelic substances. She suggested that mind-altering plants could be the origin of the sacred or spiritual, performing as “vehicles for a special kind of experience adaptable to the use of most religions that acknowledge an otherworld and permit its exploration.” The notion that psychedelics are the basis for imagination and spiritual beliefs paved the way to destigmatization.

 

All these women have shown us that psychedelics are proven resources for our evolution and treatment. They blazed the trail for our current research as we attempt to disrupt and drive change in the mental health and psychedelics industries. I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of the revolution.