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Who Was Dr. Timothy Leary?

By Garry Crystal
Updated May 23, 2024
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Timothy Leary is widely regarded by the public as the guru of psychedelic drug research. He was a psychologist and writer whose main research topics were mind-altering substances and their effects on the human mind. Throughout his life, he was also known as an icon of the underground and counterculture movements.

Although Leary performed a huge amount of research on drugs such as LSD, he will probably be best remembered for the phrase, "turn on, tune in, drop out". He first used this phrase in a speech he made in the 1967 at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. It was intended to urge people to use psychedelic drugs to detach from normal social concepts and change the culture. Turn on referred to changing one's mental state through the use of drugs. Tune in meant to assess things while in this altered mental state. By drop out, Leary encouraged people to disassociate themselves from accepted societal norms. Conservatives criticized him for these unconventional theories. In fact, Former President Nixon went so far as to call him "the most dangerous man in America."

Leary was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on 22 October 1920. His educational life began at Holy Cross College and included a short stint at West Point, a US Military Academy. He then went on to the University of Alabama where he received a bachelor's degree in Psychology, and then Washington University where he acquired a master's degree. In 1950 he received a PhD in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley.

By 1959, he was teaching Psychology at Harvard. At the same time, he was raising his two children after his wife, Marianne, had committed suicide. It was around this time that Leary became interested in the hallucinogenic substance d-lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD. He began to use volunteer undergraduate students as guinea pigs for his experiments with the drug.

The heads of the University were alarmed and stopped Leary from conducting any further experiments on students. But he persisted and was expelled from his position at Harvard. Before being kicked out, he and a Harvard colleague, Richard Alpert, founded the International Foundation for Internal Freedom (IFIF). The main aim of the IFIF was to promote LSD and various other drugs.

Around this time, in the mid-1960s, Leary evolved the IFIF into a religious movement he named the League for Spiritual Discovery. At the core of this religious movement was LSD and what he called the ancient art of turning on, tuning in and dropping out. It was during this time that his famous catch phrase was originally coined. He began to hold many open-air celebrations around the country and his fame subsequently spread. In fact, many hold him responsible for the increased popularity of LSD in the 1960s when millions began to follow his tune in credo.

His life took a turn for the worse when he was arrested for marijuana possession in 1965 and 1968. He was given ten-year sentences for each crime, but only spent six months in prison, after which he broke out, with the help of others, and fled to Algeria with his second wife, Rosemary. The two traveled through various countries and finally ended up in Kabul, Afghanistan where he was seized before deplaning by US authorities and brought back to the US. He was given an extra sentence for his jailbreak and was finally released in 1976.

Following his release, Leary became a prolific writer and lecturer. While his obsession with mind-altering drugs had waned, he continued to tour Universities speaking of hopes to colonize outer space. His celebrity status never diminished, and he became a regular on television and radio while continuing to write books. He died on 31 May 1996, at the age of 75. His last known words are said to have been "why not?" and "beautiful."

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