From the Desert to the Laboratory: Mike Jay’s ‘Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic’

David Robertson // It was a ‘bright May morning’ in California in 1953 when the British author Aldous Huxley swallowed 400 milligrams of the hallucinogen mescaline and ‘sat down to wait for the results.’ Thirty minutes later Huxley ‘became aware of a slow dance of golden lights’ and, soon after, ‘sumptuous red surfaces swelling and expanding from bright nodes of energy that vibrated with a continuously changing, patterned life.’[1] The Doors of Perception, in which he reflects on his experience, is probably the most famous “trip report” in the history of psychedelics – a term coined by Huxley. One could be forgiven for thinking it the rare experience of a flamboyant individual (this was the man, after all, who successfully requested to be dosed with LSD during the final moments of his life). Yet as Mike Jay’s Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic (2019) demonstrates, the use of mescaline by scientists, artists, academics, and literati was hardly unprecedented by the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Mescaline, the primary hallucinogenic alkaloid present in the small, button-shaped peyote cactus of Mexico and Texas as well as larger columnar cacti in the Andean region, has been consumed in the Americas for thousands of years. Western scientific study of these cacti began much more recently, toward the end of the nineteenth century. With experiences closely matching those of the chemically synthesized hallucinogen LSD, mescaline produces colorful visions, distortions of time and space, hallucinations, and feelings of transcendence. One dose may last for over twelve hours.

Jay’s book is a pioneering effort to grapple with the different uses and knowledge of this substance and the cacti which produce it. It is an engrossing book. Over twelve chapters it traces the movement of the drug and cacti through the world of art and literature, science and medicine, religion and anthropology, and law and the counterculture. Much of the book can be summarized through examining three of these interrelated fields.

Firstly, mescaline’s contribution to artistic culture well precedes Huxley’s consumption of the isolated alkaloid in 1953. Earlier in the century, peyote had been sourced from European and American vendors and used in occultist ceremonies. In the 1910s, British occultist Aleister Crowley held multiple séances in which peyote juice was consumed alongside other intoxicants. Two of his subjects included the poets W. B. Yeats and Ethel Archer, the latter including a fictionalized account of the experience in The Hierophant (1932).

Philosopher Walter Benjamin was another famous sampler of the drug, trying it for the first time in Berlin in 1934. Following injection with mescaline, Benjamin complained about his apartment setting and, shivering, wrote: ‘In shuddering, the skin imitates the meshwork of a net. But the net is the world net: the whole universe is caught in it.’ (p. 162). The following year, in Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre’s experience on mescaline was more ambivalent. He agreed that it had made nature more interesting to him, but held it partly responsible for his subsequent nervous breakdown and lifelong hallucinations of giant crabs which stalked him at the periphery of his vision. The stalking crab theme was one Sartre later developed in his play The Condemned of Altona (1959) and Jay suggests his mescaline experience even influenced his more famous novel Nausea (1938) ‘in which mundane objects continually reveal hideous aspects or dissolve into viscous masses’ (p. 159).

A painting by the British Surrealist Basil Beaumont while under the influence of mescaline. Recruited by a psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, Beaumont ended up being held in the institution over night as a result of a “bad trip.”

A second theme relates to the ceremonial and religious uses of peyote. Much of the book dwells on the seemingly insurmountable barrier between religious and scientific attempts to understand these substances. In western parlance both the cacti and the extracted alkaloid tend to be lumped under the category of “drugs,” a class which emphasizes their ability to produce a shift in consciousness for the individual and can carry obvious negative connotations. Such definitional debates go back to the colonization of the Americas, where peyote worship elicited differing reactions from Catholic colonists, most viewing it as “the devil’s root” but others seeing it as akin to communion and even a potential steppingstone to the acceptance of Christianity. Ultimately, colonization issued forth a long era of disruptive but unsuccessful efforts to eradicate peyote and the practices of consumption and worship which surrounded it.

Peyote (Lophophora williamsii). Frank Vincentz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, peyote consumption by members of the Native American Church lives on in the United States under the protection of the First Amendment. Officially founded in 1918, the NAC incorporates aspects of Native American beliefs with Christianity and peyote consumption. Unlike individualistic drug trips, ceremonies held by the NAC are collective events in which Church members gather together to celebrate a significant life event or mourn the passing of a family member. Importantly, the ceremonial experience is not understood in chemical or visual terminologies. As one of the Church’s websites writes: ‘Peyote is not used to obtain ‘visions’ but to open portals to Reality. Always seeking centeredness within this existence. Peyote is the road back to the true Self. This should suffice in order to allow personal comprehension of this Sacrament.’[2] Consumption of other psychoactive cacti also lives on in some Andean countries such as Peru, where it is legal to consume a variety of cacti of the Trichocereus genus.

A third and final realm of this history is that of medical-scientific studies of cacti and mescaline. The earliest of these began in the late nineteenth century. In a fascinating account, Jay discusses the early research of British physician Havelock Ellis and American neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell. Ellis, known for his work on human sexuality which strongly influenced Freud, wrote of his self-experiments with peyote in 1897 and 1898. Dubbing peyote a ‘new artificial paradise’—a reference to Baudelaire’s work on hashish—Ellis was one of the first westerners to recount the experience in primarily visual terms, describing it as ‘a saturnalia of the specific senses, and chiefly an orgy of vision’ (p. 92).

If introspection through self-experimentation was one scientific method to study these substances, the chemical extraction of peyote’s components soon became another. While vendors had made the purchase of dried peyote buttons available since at least 1890, in 1897 German chemist Arthur Heffter isolated mescaline and, through self-experimentation, demonstrated that it was the cactus’ primary psychoactive alkaloid. In 1919 another German chemist, Ernst Späth, undertook the first chemical synthesis of the substance. The new laboratory product was quickly reborn as a ‘pure white drug’ and sold internationally by Merck pharmaceutical company (p. 131).

Unsurprisingly, the mass production of mescaline facilitated wider scientific experimentation. During a tour of European psychiatric research institutions in 1937, Australian-British psychiatrist Aubrey Lewis reported that multiple researchers were experimenting with the substance. In Amsterdam monkeys administered mescaline were having their brain activity read with EEGs. In Leningrad the Soviet military was researching hallucinations produced by the drug. Even pharmacologists in Kraków were experimenting with its use as a psychiatric medication.

Meanwhile, physicians at Lewis’ own institute, the Maudsley Hospital in London, were researching depersonalization in patients dosed with mescaline. This research was partly encouraged by German-British psychiatrist Wilhelm Mayer-Gross, who had been involved with similar mescaline research at Heidelberg University in the 1920s in a department then overseen by the eminent psychiatrist and, later, philosopher, Karl Jaspers. Such research ultimately led to new claims from British psychiatrists that schizophrenia resulted from a disturbance in the body’s production of adrenaline, a neurotransmitter with a chemical structure similar to that of mescaline.[3]

Jay’s contribution both draws upon and deepens recent findings in the history of psychiatry regarding the role of mescaline in stimulating research into the neurochemical origins of mental disorders.[4] If there is one major drawback to the book, it is the greater attention it gives to peyote and mescaline extract over cacti from South America. One wonders how the history of the much larger Trichocereus species growing in Andean countries contrasts with the story of peyote and pure mescaline. If peyote worship has somehow endured centuries of efforts to eradicate it, what have been the responses of South American regimes to their own populations’ use of psychoactive cacti? How and why has the growing, harvesting, and consumption of these cacti remained popular in these countries? Despite this small oversight, Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic is a welcome and timely contribution to a growing literature on the history of hallucinogens.


[1] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (New York: Harper, 1954).

[2] http://www.nativeamericanchurch.com/peyote.html

[3] For a brief discussion of this, see: https://medicalhealthhumanities.com/2019/05/25/sewing-the-tapestry-of-the-history-of-psychiatry-anne-harringtons-mind-fixers/

[4] See, for instance: Anne Harrington, Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness (New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 2019); and, Erika Dyck, Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.).

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