The Daily Telegraph in the UK has a story today claiming that a 1951 outbreak of hallucinations and dementia in the French village of Pont-Saint-Esprit was not (as everyone thought) an example of ergot poisoning. No, according to some guy who’s writing a book, it was. . .a secret LSD experiment.
Now, there most certainly were secret LSD experiments during the 1950s and 1960s. (The book Storming Heaven has a good account of them, as well as of the history of LSD in general). But it’s rather hard to see why the CIA should decide to dose some village in the Auvergne, especially when the symptoms (burning sensations in the extremities as well as hallucinations) seem to match ergotism quite well.
But no matter. I think we can dispose of this new book and its author pretty quickly. Just take a look at some of his scoop:
However, H P Albarelli Jr., an investigative journalist, claims the outbreak resulted from a covert experiment directed by the CIA and the US Army’s top-secret Special Operations Division (SOD) at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
The scientists who produced both alternative explanations, he writes, worked for the Swiss-based Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company, which was then secretly supplying both the Army and CIA with LSD.
Mr Albarelli came across CIA documents while investigating the suspicious suicide of Frank Olson, a biochemist working for the SOD who fell from a 13th floor window two years after the Cursed Bread incident. One note transcribes a conversation between a CIA agent and a Sandoz official who mentions the “secret of Pont-Saint-Esprit” and explains that it was not “at all” caused by mould but by diethylamide, the D in LSD.
Laughter may now commence. For the non-chemists in the audience, diethylamide isn’t a separate compound; it’s the name of a chemical group. And LSD isn’t some sort of three-component mixture, it’s the diethylamide derivative of the parent compound, lysergic acid. (I’d like to hear this guy explain to me what the “S” stands for). Diethylamides have no particular hallucinogenic properties; they’re too small and common a chemical group for anything like that. DEET, the insect repellent, is a common one, and there are plenty of others.
In short, neither the author of this new book, nor the people at the Telegraph, nor the supposed scientific “source” of this quote, know anything about chemistry. This is like saying that the secret of TNT is a compound called “Tri”. Nonsense.
Update: see the comments section. Not everyone’s buying my line of thought here. . .