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Tram Day Celebrates Female LSD Pioneer Susi Ramstein

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Tram Day Celebrates Female LSD Pioneer Susi Ramstein

The Women’s Visionary Council (WVC) is joining with The Alembic, a consciousness education center in Berkeley, CA, to inaugurate an annual celebration of Susi Ramstein, the first LSD guide and the first woman to take LSD. The WVC and the Alembic will host a special presentation tonight, June 12, featuring scholar Susanne Seiler. This event is part of the Alembic’s psychedelic salon series, The Chalice. Tickets for the livestream and in-person event are available here

Born in Switzerland in 1922, Ramstein was the daughter of an optometrist. She grew up in Basel and went to finishing school in the French-speaking region of Switzerland where she learned languages, deportment, etiquette, and housekeeping skills. While girls were not expected to attend university at this time, Ramstein enrolled in a training program with the Pharmaceutical Chemical Research department of Sandoz labs. She became the only female apprentice and at the age of 20, a junior laboratory assistant for Dr. Albert Hofmann. 

Ramstein’s responsibilities included preparing chemical mixtures, analyzing samples, and checking tests. Before Susi joined the laboratory team, Hofmann had been experimenting for several years with derivatives of the Claviceps purpurea fungus which contained ergot alkaloids. Hofmann created a number of ergot-related compounds, including LSD-25, which he synthesized in 1938 for its possible use as a respiratory or circulatory stimulant. While the compound seemed to produce only mild restlessness in laboratory animals and was shelved, Hofmann had an intuition that it might have additional useful effects that may have been missed and he re-synthesized it in 1943. 

Hofmann unintentionally came into contact with this chemical on April 16, 1943 and experienced a “not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition.” He himself was not sure how he came in contact with the compound. At 4:20 PM on April 19, 1943, Hofmann intentionally took 250 millionths of a gram in a glass of water. Hofmann considered this dose orders of magnitude below the active threshold of other ergot alkaloids he had studied. He planned to carry out a series of experiments, gradually increasing the dose until some minimal effect could be detected. Within an hour, however, the effect of 250 micrograms was noticeable.

Other than Ramstein, Hofmann did not inform anyone at the lab of his intentions, as he expected that such a tiny dose would have no effect. “Miss Ramstein” is named as this assistant in Hofmann’s official laboratory report of this experiment, but his famous description of this experience in his book, LSD, My Problem Child, does not identify Ramstein. He simply writes that he asked his laboratory assistant to accompany him on the five-kilometer bicycle trip to his home. Hofmann later said that he felt that they made very slow progress, but Ramstein told him that she had had to pedal hard to keep up with him and coached him on his progress, as he was experiencing visual distortions. 

Hofmann’s wife Anita was away when they arrived at his empty house. Worried that he might have been seriously poisoned, he asked Ramstein to get some milk from a woman next door to drink as an antidote. Hofmann reports that the woman, Mrs. Ruch, who brought the milk, assumed the appearance of a malevolent witch with a colorful mask. He also recorded that he was dizzy, faint, and anxious that he had perhaps caused himself permanent damage with his self-experimentation. His furniture took on threatening shapes and spun in agitated motions. Throughout the experience, Ramstein remained at his side. When she could not reach the family doctor, she called a substitute, who found nothing out of the ordinary after examining Hofmann. While he was anxious, had dilated pupils and was not able to form a complete sentence, his vital signs were normal and he seemed perfectly well. 

Reassured by the knowledge that he was probably not dying or going permanently insane, Hofmann began to relax and enjoy the visual images. Ramstein stayed with him until his wife returned and according to Hofmann’s book, left him in a positive and enjoyable frame of mind. Following this self-experiment, Hofmann reported his experience to his boss, Arthur Stoll, and to Ernest Rothlin, then the director of the pharmacology department at Sandoz. Sandoz was interested in learning about the potential of this substance, so they permitted Dr. Hofmann to cautiously continue his self-experiments at much lower doses.

Everyone on Hofmann’s Sandoz laboratory team also took part in at least one 

LSD experiment. Susi participated in three. On June 12, 1943, then 22-year-old Ramstein became the first woman to take LSD. Although she was also the youngest person yet to have tried it, she took 100 micrograms, a larger dose than Hofmann’s male colleagues. Many years later, Ramstein told Seiler that she found the experience enjoyable, and the effects pleasant. After her first experiment in the lab, she took the tram home. Ramstein reported that she found the appearance of the passengers and the long-nosed conductor to be comical. 

Ramstein discussed her ideas about the experience with her colleagues at Sandoz. Her 

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insights helped to determine dosage levels for the medical use of LSD. She 

also took some of the LSD variants that Hofmann synthesized, dihy-dro-LSD and d-Iso-LSD, which seemed to be less psychoactive. About a year after her last LSD experience, she left Sandoz to marry. By that time, this highly curious, intelligent, and courageous young woman had left her mark on the history of psychedelics. Susi Ramstein Weber, the first psychedelic guide, and the first woman to take LSD, died in the fall of 2011, several years after the death of Dr. Hofmann. 

While we don’t have a fuller first hand account of Ramstein’s LSD experience, it’s fascinating to imagine what this young woman must have thought as she pedaled beside her tripping boss. We know that she was a very helpful and observant companion. Now that April 19, “Bicycle Day” has become a well-known and joyously celebrated holiday for psychonauts, let us also remember and celebrate June 12, as a way of honoring the courage and intelligence of Susi Ramstein. 

To learn more about Susi, please read Mariavittoria Mangini and Erika Dyck’s article Susi’s Tram Ride.

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