15 April 2022 — 12:00 noon — online

Benjamin Breen (UC–Santa Cruz)

“Sciences of Survival: The Origins of Psychedelic Therapy and World War II”

During World War II and the Cold War that followed, a mobilization of social scientists and physicians took place on an unprecedented scale. Based on a chapter from my in-progress book on the history of experimental drug research in the middle decades of the twentieth century, this paper draws links between the “salvage anthropology” of cultural anthropologists like Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson and the emergence, among drug researchers, of a parallel concept of what we might call “salvage pharmacology.” Drawing on non-Western traditions of pharmacology, drug researchers began to see themselves as contributing to the continued survival of the human species — the healing of a “sick society.” At the same time, however, many also became complicit in a new form of covert, weaponized drug science. I am interested in exploring how early research on substances like LSD, mescaline, and synthetic sex hormones connects to the histories of risk, trauma, and Latin American and Asian ethnobotany during the Global Cold War.


Benjamin Breen earned his PhD in history from the University of Texas at Austin in 2015. He is the author of The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), winner of the 2021 William H. Welch Medal from the American Association for the History of Medicine. He is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz and was previously a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.

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