Monkey Business

Inside Some Psychedelic Experiences at Stanford

By Sarayu Pai

May 28, 2023, 11:03 a.m.

What do monkeys, LSD and Stanford University all have in common? 

More than you think, probably. 

The connection is one man: the famed novelist Ken Kesey. 

A colorful figure whose work infused American counterculture in the 1960s, Kesey is perhaps most recognized for penning the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which met critical acclaim and controversy. First published in 1962, the novel was soon adapted into a Broadway play and then into a film that won multiple Academy Awards.

But before he was drafting “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Kesey was ingesting psychedelics in experiments right down the street in Menlo Park at the Veterans’ Association Hospital. Around this time, researchers became psyched about a particular new psychedelic: LSD. The drug is now classified as a Schedule I illegal substance, effectively criminalized for recreational and clinical research that is not federally approved.

Short for lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD is a highly potent synthetic drug that can induce psychedelic experiences ranging from sharper sensory experiences to hallucinations. It was discovered in 1938 by a researcher named Albert Hofmann, who was working for Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz. According to Erika Dyck, a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan, LSD “did not enter into human experimentation until the 1940s.”

“At that time, it was something like the Wild West,” said fourth-year psychiatry resident Gianni Glick, describing the unbridled nature of psychedelic research. The research standards of that era were not “nearly as rigorous as they are today,” he said.

And naturally, the “Wild West” psychedelic research scene attracted some wild figures.

Kicking it back with Kesey

In 1958, Kesey arrived at Stanford as a Stegner Fellow in the creative writing program. 

He was fresh off a largely triumphant wrestling career that landed him a spot as an alternate in the 1960 Olympics, a career grievously cut short by a shoulder injury. He also nurtured an interest in the illusory arts, including magic and ventriloquism.

Within the creative writing program, director Wallace Stegner “thought the charismatic and rebellious Kesey a clown, but other faculty spied promise, including novelist Malcolm Cowley,” journalist Malcolm Harris writes in his book “Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World.” 

Kesey moved to a place on Perry Lane, befriending Vic Lovell, a psychology graduate student at Stanford, who informed Kesey of participating in psychedelic experiments to make some quick cash. During these experiments, drugs like LSD, peyote and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) were given to test subjects like Kesey. In “The Electric Kool-Aid Test,” Tom Wolfe writes that the renegade residents of Perry Lane had shipments of the peyote, which was illegal at the time, on mail order.

Those trips were enough to send Kesey down a rabbit hole of a psychedelic safari. In an 1989 interview with NPR, Kesey said his first trip “was groovy,” accompanied by the epiphany that “theres [sic] a lot more to this world than we previously thought.” Wolfe writes that after participating in LSD experiments, Kesey took on a job as a night attendant in the ward to earn income and work on another novel Zoo, which remains unpublished. 

According to Harris, Kesey pursued employment at the Menlo Park VA, “where he had unfettered access to experimental narcotics.” At work, Kesey was able to sample from a smorgasbord of psychedelics, “from LSD to psilocybin to mescaline to morning glory seeds.” 

The year 1962 saw the publication of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which was influenced by his work at the Menlo Park VA and details the tragicomic misadventures of patients in a psychiatric facility. In fact, Kesey allegedly devised one of the main characters, Chief Bromden, while high on peyote.The novel was an instant hit. 

Harris writes that “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” “is a distillation of hippie thought,” in which “Kesey drew a distinct opposition between individual consciousness and a system of social control.” In the novel, the patient characters were inspired by patients at the Menlo Park VA and “the Kesey character, Randle McMurphy, is there to liberate his fellow patients with swaggering masculine megalomania.” According to Harris, Kesey brought McMurphy to life by “throwing large drug-fueled parties that… he made competitive.” (Clearly, Kesey never abandoned his competitive athletic spirit.)

Kesey became a firebrand figure in the Bay Area, forming a motley crew of followers named the Merry Pranksters. According to American studies lecturer J. Christian Greer, the “Merry Pranksters played a leading role in making California, and particularly San Francisco, the uncontested center of psychedelic culture in the United States in the 1960s.”

To escape the hubbub in the wake of his book’s overwhelmingly positive reception, Kesey fled to the tranquil hills of La Honda. But he might have brought more than just himself and his family to La Honda — monkeys are reported to have followed.

Rae Alexandra, a staff writer for KQED, heard rumors of Kesey’s monkeys during a visit to La Honda, interviewing locals about these animals who had allegedly been fed acid. 

Alexandra learned more about how the LSD-impacted monkeys, collectively nicknamed “The Shaved,” “came to roam the hills of La Honda.” 

Allegedly, while Kesey was ingesting test drugs, researchers like the enigmatic Bill Marquis, or “Monkey Bill” were also feeding monkeys. Alexandra discovered a 2001 newspaper article quoting Monkey Bill as pinpointing Kesey as a reason for his alighting on La Honda. She writes that the location of where the doped feedings occur seems to be a point of contention, ranging from at Stanford itself to Monkey Bill’s backyard where he may have housed “25 to 35 primates.” 

When governments outlawed LSD experimentation, a source reports that the Merry Pranksters (including Kesey) and Monkey Bill, all while high on LSD themselves, “released the primates into the wild” so as to avoid euthanizing them.

Alexandra writes that in a video interview, Monkey Bill corroborates his monkey facility, claiming he had six monkeys that he would feed “various psychedelic drugs.” From her research, Alexandra noted that some dates regarding Monkey Bill’s activities and the Acid Tests do not align, but “it’s almost impossible to verify what fates the LSD test monkeys met” since both men have since passed.

The Grateful Dead enter the fray and frenzy

Kesey’s arrival in La Honda coincided with the beginning of the Acid Tests. The house band for these events was none other than the Grateful Dead. At some music festivals in the 1960s, the LSD was provided by the Grateful Dead’s very own, a sound engineer named Owsley Stanley. 

Stanley was one of the masterminds behind the “Wall of Sound,” a stage-based sound system tailored to Grateful Dead concerts. The first prototype of the system debuted in 1973 at Stanford’s very own Maples Pavilion. 

Although Stanley became an impresario for the band, he was one for LSD first. The smashing success of Stanley’s first trip lit a fire under him. He and his roommate Melissa Cargill, a chemistry major, became hell-bent on home–brewing LSD of a quality that rivaled that of pharmaceutical companies. Stanley hit the books in the UC Berkeley library to learn chemistry. And thus began his prolific career cooking LSD. 

To fund LSD production, though, Stanley first made methedrine in the ad hoc space of a Berkeley bathroom (but maybe with more sophisticated equipment than Hermione Granger used to whip up Polyjuice Potion in “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”). Even recently, one could place bids on some of the lab instruments Stanley used to crank up batches of acid.

Many of his doses were distributed free of charge. To the counterculture event Human Be-In in 1967, Stanley provided a colossal 300,000 hits of an LSD strain he dubbed “White Lightning.” Later that year, he distributed another 100,000 tabs of purple variant called “Monterey Purple” at the Monterey Pop festival, allegedly sparking the Grateful Dead song “Purple Haze.” 

Tabs were one method of LSD consumption in the 1960s, in which pieces of blotter paper were soaked in LSD and covered in illustrations. Owsley himself printed a “dancing bear,” a quintessential Grateful Dead symbol, in honor of his stage name “Bear.”

“Owsley LSD” was renowned for its purity and potency the Bay Area over. He found the optimal LSD dosage to be 150 to 200 micrograms, so he was floored when Kesey insisted on taking 400-microgram doses of his wares. Estimates as to how many doses Stanley concocted during his reign as a lord of LSD range between one and five million. Some of Owsley’s clientele reportedly included Stanford alumni like Ben Collins, who claimed in an interview to be “happy customers” of Stanley.

Kesey and Owsley were perhaps two of the era’s de facto LSD evangelizers, spreading its psychedelic gospel through Merry Prankster activities and music festivals, respectively. According to Greer, Kesey and the Pranksters had thousands of people in attendance at their “Acid Test” extravaganzas, which were “multimedia festivals in which guests were offered ‘electric kool-aid,’ a sugary beverage laced with LSD.” Although some may say that these events are what spawned the iconic expression “drinking the Kool-Aid,” it is more commonly attributed to the Jonestown, Guyana massacre.

GB, a chef at Stanford, worked for a company that provided catering service during Grateful Dead concerts. According to her, the chefs cooked a variety of dishes for the musicians, but “the bands really loved smoked meat. Smoked duck, smoked whatever.” 

She says she did not know what LSD would have truly looked like back then, but added “I never witnessed them taking [LSD]. That’s got to be in their dressing room, private[ly], I’m assuming.” 

Even among concertgoers, GB recalled witnessing more natural drugs. “[Deadheads] are very loving people. Granted, they’re all on drugs,” with said drugs typically being marijuana or magic mushrooms.  

Many of the verses lyricist Robert Hunter penned for famous Grateful Dead songs are said to have been fueled by LSD trips. Dennis McNally said he was the Grateful Dead’s official historian and publicist, speaking to some of the members’ relationships with LSD, chiefly Hunter and frontman Jerry Garcia.

According to McNally, around 1961 or 1962, “Hunter saw a notice about the drug testing going on at the Menlo Park VA,” and took the job up, earning “$10 a trip.” McNally said that “it wouldn’t be until 1965 when Garcia took it for the first time.” According to McNally, Garcia reportedly remarked, “suspicions confirmed” after taking the drug. McNally said that “[Garcia]’s first experience was quite wonderful and most of the rest were too.”

LSD consumption also had somewhat of a coalescing effect on the band’s musical creations. According to McNally, there was “a profound affinity between taking LSD and improvisational music,” because consuming the drug facilitated the group members’ entry into “a group mind where they listened to each other so profoundly and so well.”

A trip for the books

LSD was outlawed in California in 1966 and across the United States in 1968. Ironically enough, Kesey was arrested twice (in 1965 and 1966) for marijuana possession.

But as polarizing as the subject of LSD consumption can be, its impact on American creatives like Kesey and affiliates of the Grateful Dead seems to be unmistakably concrete — and many of these trailblazing trips happened right around the Stanford bubble.

Perhaps the sense of enlightenment that taking LSD gave is best evidenced in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” As Kesey wrote, 

“He knows that you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy.”

This article has been updated to include the correct measurement of LSD. 

Contact Sarayu at smpai918 ‘at’

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