PCS Blog

Ken Kesey: Government Guinea Pig?

Posted by Kinsley Suer | 08 March 2011





"Of course, the best drugs ever were manufactured by the government."


- Ken Kesey (Interview with The Sun Times, 29 August 1999)

Ken Kesey moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and enrolled in Stanford's creative writing program in 1958. In 1959, doctors at Stanford University began asking for volunteers to take part in a government research program in which they would be observed under the influence of various psychotropic drugs. The experiment was part of the government's wider search for "truth serums" and behavior-modification drugs designed for interrogations and psychological warfare. The drugs being tested included peyote, ditran, mescaline, IT-290 and a synthetic hallucinogen called Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25 as it was more commonly known.
In the spring of 1960, Kesey began participating in these government-sponsored experiments with psychopharmacology, conducted by Stanford scientists at the Menlo Park Veteran's Hospital in Northern California. He was paid $75 to be an experimental subject, take psychedelic pharmaceuticals and report on their effects. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $75 in 1960 would be the approximate equivalent of more than $550 dollars today. $550 to take LSD?! This somewhat explains Kesey's participaton.
In a 1998 interview with Stanford Magazine, Ken Kesey likened the experiments to exploring a haunted house:
“[The scientists] didn’t have the guts to do it themselves, so they hired students. ‘Hey, we found this room. Would you please go inside and let us know what’s going on in there?’ When we came back out, they took one look at us and said, ‘Whatever they do, don’t let them go back in that room!’”
IT-290, a psychadelic stimulant, was originally used in the 1960's as an antidepressant; however, it quickly fell out of clinical use due to toxicity and abuse concerns. In the early 1960s, LSD was also a legal drug; the medical profession was experimenting with LSD in the hope of using it in the treatment of the mentally ill. Kesey found the Ditran nightmarish, but thought that the LSD - then practically unknown outside the research community - was pretty great. He already worked as a night aide in the psychiatric ward of the Veteran’s Hospital, and it was during his nightshifts there that he spent time talking to various patients, sometimes under the influence of the LSD he had taken as part of the program.
The drugs Kesey took while participating in the research program had a profound effect on him, and his experiences at the Menlo Park Veteran's Hospital would ultimately influence his novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. In addition, his LSD-laced experiences helped pave the way for the transformation of the beat movement to the hippie movement in San Francisco - a countercultural transformation in which Kesey played a leading role.


Comments (3)

Thanks for posting! Awesome, needed information like this.

  • Cassandra Paz
  • California
  • 04 Apr 11 05:59

Thanks for sharing the link Laura! I especially enjoyed the doctor’s calm and collected reactions to his subject’s responses. It’s hard to believe that the footage is real - it’s so…surreal!

  • Kinsley Suer
  • 10 Mar 11 06:10

Interesting. Housewives also took part in lsd experimentation. Check out this You Tube link of a housewife circa 1956 under observation while taking lsd: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QDTsZn-eM5g

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