Turning On, Tuning In, and Dropping Out at Memorial Union
On Valentine’s Day 1967, a tittering crowd of students, faculty, and University President Fred H. Harrington himself sat nervously before a stage in Memorial Union. They trained their eyes on a barefoot and bemused middle-aged man sporting a crisp white kaftan. “Our speaker is Doctor Timothy Leary,” the emcee announced, breaking the silence, “well-known spokesman for LSD.” Before handing Leary the floor, the emcee made clear that the WSA by no means endorsed their guest’s psychedelic proclivities. “It is not our function to justify a philosophy,” he explained, leaving that task to the audience.
WSA Symposium’s choice was indeed provocative. While once an assistant professor at UC-Berkeley and the Director of Psychiatric Research at the Kaiser Family Foundation, Leary had long since diverged from the traditional academic path. As the Symposium Committee emcee wryly observed of Leary’s tortuous career, “The road to acceptance has not been free of obstacles.”
In 1963 he lost a position in clinical psychology at Harvard after failing to uphold his lecturing commitments – and simultaneously conducting ethically questionable experiments with psychedelic drugs among the student body. Chief among those drugs was lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), a substance Leary contended had the potential to positively influence human behavior. He had become a personal convert after a jaunt with psilocybin mushrooms in Mexico three years earlier. Banished from Harvard, Leary spread the gospel of psychedelic drugs from a property in Millbrook, New York. While some accounts claimed the estate to be the headquarters of legitimate experimentation (chief among them Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), others depicted the site as a den of drugs and debauchery.
The controversial doctor’s reputation preceded him on the UW-Madison campus, as crowds from Memorial Union spilled over to a broadcast location at Great Hall. Upon taking the microphone, Leary encouraged those present to remove their shoes and asked the tech crew to turn out the lights. Then he cut right to the chase, laying out the central tenet of his philosophy: “Turn out, tune in, drop out.” He devoted the remainder of this talk to this message, “so simple that it’s always misunderstood and misinterpreted.” Leary criticized what he called the “Television Studio,” a code word for the establishment’s efforts to encourage conformity and discourage young people from seeking reality through the senses. LSD, he explained, was the key to “tuning in” to that sensory experience.
Leary’s speech at Memorial Union – dreamy, menacing, and downright bizarre at turns – elicited bursts of laughter and occasional applause. Afterwards, the speaker addressed comments from the audience. In this clip, he answers the following question: “During LSD sessions, does one lose physical control?” Leary’s response defies synopsis.
In the days that followed, students reported on and responded to the speech in the pages of the Daily Cardinal (which simultaneously ran a series of articles about drug use on campus). “Timothy Leary: Charlatan or Prophet?” asked one February 16 headline with opposing views proffered by Fred Kauffeld and Christy Sinks.
Evidently some readers thought the series too critical. One letter to the editor published on February 21, 1967 expressed concern that the Cardinal pieces “play up the bad and play down the good.” The anonymous writer defended LSD in the following terms: “Nobody seems to take into account the fact that a trip is what you make it. You create the nightmare or you create the ecstasy. You create the peacefulness or you create the fright. Reality changes, but you decide whether nothing is anything anymore or everything is everything suddenly.” For some students, Leary was clearly preaching to the choir.
Months later, the Badger yearbook remembered Leary among a host of symposium speakers, all “provocative persons” who bore witness to “the spirit of inquiry and freedom characteristic of our generation.” But only fellow speakers Drs. Johnson and Masters could rival Leary in pairing provocation and inquiry. Tune in here (but don’t drop out) for further blog posts on their 1967 campus visit.
Jillian Slaight for UW-Madison Archives