New graphic novel explores psychedelic research on the prairies

Erika Dyck's research delves into the history of medical LSD trials in Saskatchewan in the 1950s.

The Star Phoenix 3 minute read November 25, 2021

In 1951, British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond arrived in Saskatchewan to a startling sight.

A giant Gothic institution rose up from the prairies. As if in accordance with its architecture, its residents faced attempts to treat their mental illnesses with dated practices.

Osmond became clinical director of the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital in Weyburn, and later became its superintendent.

Most mental health-care at the time consisted of long-term stays in overcrowded and under-resourced facilities — a “pretty dire state of affairs,” University of Saskatchewan researcher Erika Dyck. More than 70 per cent of people admitted to the hospital in Weyburn lived the rest of their lives there, she noted.

It was a period of flux for both health care and psychiatry in the province. To Osmond and others, it was the perfect time to try something novel.

Those explorations included medical trials using LSD to treat patients and gain understanding of psychotic disorders in the 1950s. This period of Saskatchewan history, when the province became a hub for psychedelic research, forms the basis for Dyck’s work.

“It’s not a coincidence that the word ‘psychedelic’ was coined here,” Dyck said. “And that this province became one of the epicentres of research at that time and continued to create a dynamic space for interdisciplinary research, research that was linked very much to drug regulation and health-care reforms.”

The research has been developed into the graphic novel, Wonder Drug: LSD in the Land of Living Skies, written by Hugh D.A. Goldring with illustrations from nicole burton.

Dyck was initially drawn to research in this area due to its connections to provincial health-care policy. Post-Depression and with the election of Tommy Douglas as premier, Saskatchewan in the 1940s and ’50s was a conducive space for people in politics and health care to test new approaches, she said.

Osmond’s groundbreaking research eventually caught the eye of the author Aldous Huxley. In a friendship forged through letters until Huxley’s death — and a road trip from Saskatchewan to Los Angeles to deliver mescaline for him to try — the pair was responsible for coining the term ‘psychedelic’ in exchanged letters containing rhyming couplets.

“To fathom Hell or go angelic / Just take a pinch of psychedlic,” Osmond wrote to Huxley.

Dyck has published her own book on the research. She hopes this new, more visual interpretation can reach a broader audience. As psychedelic research in some form takes place across the country in the present day, including in Saskatchewan, Dyck envisions the work as part of a continued conversation about the role of psychedelics in health care.

“I hope it reaches new audiences, and … stimulates conversations amongst readers or consumers of graphic novels that wouldn’t otherwise necessarily reach for a history book, but that it can continue to contribute to the conversation about psychedelics and what they mean for our future,” she said.

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