Margaret Mead was among the most famous scientists of the 20th century. Despite this, however, her role in the early history of psychedelic research has gone strangely unnoticed. In this excerpt from my new book Tripping on Utopia, Margaret Mead, recently returned from months of anthropological fieldwork studying an apocalyptic religious movement known as the Noise on the remote island of Manus, becomes involved in the early LSD experiments of Harold Alexander Abramson—and begins planning to take the drug herself. Summer, 1954 With her paper-cluttered desk spotlit underneath a pendant lamp, Margaret Mead’s office in the western turret in the American Museum of Natural History resembled a Broadway theater set. All around her in the shadows hung masks and carved figures, as if the museum dioramas from the floors below had begun to creep into her workspace. Back in her spiritual home after spending the last six months of 1953 in Manus, she felt refreshed, confident. She was already thinking through her book about her experience; New Lives for Old would be the title, and it would describe the Noise, an apocalyptic religious movement which spread through the island of Manus, which lies northeast of New Guinea, in the aftermath of World War II. In 1947, a prophet had emerged on Manus who predicted a coming age of abundance, even immortality. But first, the old ways had to be cast out. Reports poured in of visionary experiences, trance states, even seizures. Hats of colonial officials were ritually burned, and a coming age of abundance was proclaimed. Mead found the Noise fascinating because she saw it as a prelude to other new cultural forms which she believed would appear elsewhere as a response to the rapid changes of the 20th century—including in the United States. She saw the movement in relatively benign terms. True, it really was an apocalyptic cult, she wrote, complete with mystical “prophetic dreams” and the promise of “a utopia to be immediately established on earth.” But who said utopian dreams were entirely bad?
For Mead, this was not just a matter of survival in one village on one island. All human societies, everywhere, needed to learn to change in similar ways and with similar speed, avoiding the excesses of what she called “the apocalyptic cult aspect” but also recognizing that, as she later put it, “conscious intervention in the process of cultural evolution and human survival” was now the most urgent task that humanity faced. This was the goal of her science. And the things she saw and heard in the spring and summer of 1954 made her think that psychedelics might be part of it.