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Cover: The Acid Room: The Psychedelic Trials and Tribulations of Hollywood Hospital

The Acid Room: The Psychedelic Trials and Tribulations of Hollywood Hospital

By Jesse Donaldson and Erika Dyck

Review By Greg Marquis

December 26, 2023

BC Studies no. 219 Autumn 2023  | p. 141-142

This book is small enough to fit into the back pocket of a pair of jeans. According to Anvil Press’s Brian Kauman, the 49.2 series was inspired in part by the Bloomsbury series Object Lessons, which produces small monographs on specific subjects (or objects) geared towards a broad audience of readers. Erika Dyck is an academic historian who has written on psychiatry, psychedelic drugs and eugenics.  Jesse Donaldson is a journalist and author who has produced other books in the 49.2 series on aspects of Vancouver’s past. The Acid Room is a brief but highly readable and instructive study of a largely forgotten chapter in the history of medicine, the Hollywood Hospital located in New Westminster.  It is also an attempt to recapture a time in North American history when psychedelics were not only legal and lightly regulated, but also viewed as a promising treatment option for patients with psychological or family problems. This was before the embrace of LSD by the counterculture and growing media coverage of the alleged negative effects of the drug that sparked a backlash that curtailed its therapeutic uses and criminalized its recreational uses.

The Hollywood Hospital initially specialized in treating alcoholics. In the early 1950s, the search was on for new methods and drugs to treat not only alcoholism, but also depression, anxiety and psychosis. Under new owners, the New Westminster facility treated different types of patients with LSD and employed innovative methods to do so. By the late 1950s a distinct “Canadian psychedelic therapy method” was influencing LSD treatment elsewhere.[1] One of its architects was Al Hubbard, an eccentric American who moved to British Columbia. His suspect professional credentials aside, “the Captain” was cunning a networker who introduced a number of therapeutic innovations copied by others. After acquiring supplies of LSD and conducting private experiments, Hubbard became part of a network that included not only Dr. Humphrey Osmond, the Saskatchewan-based researcher who coined the term “psychedelic,” but also author Aldous Huxley and psychiatrist J. Ross Maclean, who in 1956 purchased the Hollywood Hospital. Treatment emphasized patient comfort, facilitated by room design, lighting, artwork, flowers and music.

Donaldson and Dyck focus on the period 1957 to 1968. Although more than five hundred patient files ended up in the provincial archives, the authors use four case studies, effectively interspersed into the narrative on the rise and fall of LSD in research and treatment and the institutional history of Hollywood. While it is not clear that these two women and two men treated in Hollywood’s “Acid Room” were typical patients, their inclusion in the book makes for compelling reading and underlines the degree to which 1960s psychedelic psychiatry was a form of self-help and self-expression. Patients completed questionnaires before their treatment sessions and were asked to write about their experiences in recovery. 

The Acid Room is an accessible synopsis of many of the important issues in 20th century drug history, underscoring, for example, that science is not always sufficient to prevent criminalization of medically useful drugs. The book is also timely given growing interest in Canada and elsewhere in psychedelics like psilocybin to treat the terminally ill and people suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. In addition, possession of small amounts of these drugs is being decriminalized in various localities.

[1] Matthew Oram, The Trials of Psychedelic Therapy: LSD Psychotherapy in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 42.

Publication Information

Donaldson, Jesse and Erika Dyck. The Acid Room: The Psychedelic Trials and Tribulations of Hollywood Hospital. Vancouver: Anvil Press. 2022. 160 pp. $18.00 paper.