Albert Hofmann and R. Gordon Wasson Meet Maria Sabina -1962

A chapter from

pp. 56-60

My practical chemical investigations on the active principles of the sacred mushrooms of Mexico came to an end after the article on the modifications of psilocybin and psilocin was pub­lished in 1959. This work was carried out with my colleagues F. Troxler and F. Seeman (8). Later, in 1962, my mushroom studies found a second, adventurous and convincing conclusion when I made an expedition with my friend Gordon Wasson to Mexico.


I met R. Gordon Wasson personally for the first time in 1959, after having been in correspondence with him since the begin­ning of our collaboration on the investigation of the magic mushrooms. After we had succeeded in isolating, characterizing, and synthesizing the active principles, Gordon Wasson visited the Sandoz laboratories where this work had been accomplished. He was delighted to see the very essence of his mushrooms in the form of white crystals (Figure 3). On this occasion a joint lecture was presented to the Sandoz management and invited guests: Gordon Wasson on the ethnomycological aspects; Dr. Aurelio Cerletti, my colleague of the medical department, on pharma­cology; and myself on the chemistry of the magic mushrooms.

My friendship and collaboration with Gordon Wasson resulted in the investigation of two other magic drugs of Mexico. We were able to resolve the riddle of ololiuhqui, where lysergic acid amides closely related to LSD and other ergot alkaloids were found to be the active principles. There was still the problem of another Mexican ceremonial drug, called pipiltzintzintli in the old codices and, in Spanish, ‘hojas de la Pastora’ (leaves of the shepherdess). The plant had not yet been chemically analyzed, nor yet even identified botanically. In order to collect authentic plant material for botanical identification and chemi­cal analysis, Gordon Wasson organized an expedition in Sep­tember and October 1962 into the mountains of southern Mexico where the ‘hojas’ were known to be used by shamans, and invited me and my wife and Mrs. Irmgard Weitlaner-Johnson, the widow of the late American ethnologist J. B. Johnson, to participate.

We had an adventurous trip on muleback through the Sierra Mazateca with an Indian guide, two Indian boys who cared for the mules, and a young Mazatec woman who served as inter­preter. On the way, we participated in a nocturnal ceremony with a curandera who used and distributed the ‘hojas,’ gathered our plant material for botanical identification, and arrived at Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca. Here we visited the famous curan­dera Maria Sabina, who in that historical ceremony in 1955 had initiated Wasson into the sacred mushroom cult. Gordon asked her for a consultation and explained to her, through our inter­preter, that we had brought the ‘spirit’ of the mushrooms in the form of pills which she could use, because at that time there were no mushrooms available.

On the evening of Thursday, October 11, 1962, we gathered on the veranda of the hut of Dona Herlinda, our Mazatec in­terpreter. Maria Sabina was already there with her two daughters, Polonia and Aurora, and other people of her clan. Don Aurelio Garcia, a famous 79 year old curandero, blind in one eye, very tall, and very strong, was also present and eager to try the magic pills. Chocolate and sweets were served. Later everyone withdrew into the hut. Everybody tried to get comfortable on mats on the floor or on some kind of bed.

After about an hour, when many were already sleeping, Maria Sabina started the ceremony, lit a candle on an improvised altar, and began to pray and burn copal (p resinous incense). At about 11 o’clock the pills (each containing 5 mg synthetic psilocybin) were distributed, after Maria Sabina had held them ceremonially over the copal vessel. I had suggested that Maria Sabina take

two pairs of pills (since the mushrooms are always administered in pairs). The same dosage, that is, 20 mg of psilocybin, was given to her daughter Polonia, who also served as a curandera, and to Don Aurelio. Aurora got one pair. Gordon also took one pair, my wife and Irmgard only one pill each. I myself tried the juice of the ‘hojas de la Pastora,’ prepared for me ceremonially by a young girl.

After everybody had taken the drug, the candlelight was extinguished and everyone awaited the effects in the darkness. About 20 minutes after the ingestion there was some murmuring between Maria Sabina and Don Aurelio. Our interpreter told us that they said the pills did not work. There came to be con­siderable agitation in the room. Gordon (who was lying near me) and I were discussing the situation. For us it was clear that the onset of the effects of the pills, which must dissolve in the stomach before they can be absorbed, takes place only after 30 to 45 minutes, in contrast to the mushrooms which, when chewed, work faster because part of the drug is absorbed imme­diately by the mucosa in the mouth. But how could we have given a scientific explanation under such conditions? Instead of trying to explain, we decided to act. In order to quiet the situ­ation some more pills were distributed. The curanderas and the curandero each got an additional pair. They now had taken a total dosage of 30 mg of psilocybin. After about ten more minutes the mushroom spirit began to work. Maria Sabina started to chant, to pray, lit the candle, handled the copal. Her daugh­ters and Don Aurelio joined in chanting and praying. After midnight had passed Maria Sabina began soothsaying, answering the questions Gordon and my wife had asked her. She said that Gordon’s daughter, who had had to enter the hospital to give birth just when Gordon had left New York for the expedition to Mexico, was well and so was the baby. My wife, who had been afraid to leave her very old parents, was comforted by the curan­dera, who told her that they were well and would live many more years. Both predictions turned out to be true.

The ceremonial handling of the candle, the incense vessel, of certain herbs, the chanting, hand clapping, and praying lasted the whole night. Some of the participants were sleeping when the light of the new day signalled an end to the session.

At dawn, when we left the hut, Herlinda, our Mazatec inter­preter, told us that Maria Sabina had said that there was no difference between the pills and the mushrooms. This was the final proof that our synthetic psilocybin was identical in every respect to the natural product.

In order to express our gratitude to Maria Sabina for this gala performance, I gave her a bottle of the pills, labelled ‘Indo- cybin,’ which is the generic name for psilocybin. The prefix ‘Indo-’ refers to the Indians, the original discoverers of this drug, or to the chemical indole, of which psilocybin is a deri­vative. Maria Sabina expressed her thanks for the gift, saying that she would now be able to serve people even when no mush­rooms were available.

Albert Hofmann

Burg i.L. , Switzerland 12 December 1977