Film explores local link to psychedelic drug guru
GEORGETOWN — Nearly 40 years after Dr. Walter Pahnke vanished off the Georgetown coast, documentary filmmaker Susan Gervasi is retracing the steps of the once controversial psychedelic researcher.
The Maryland woman visited the island town earlier this month, stayed in Pahnke’s former waterfront home and interviewed local residents who remembered the doctor’s disappearance in 1971.
The documentary comes as Pahnke’s legacy experiences a revival — decades after backlash over recreational drug use made clinical use taboo. New research is now being conducted to study the doctor’s theories about the therapeutic values of psychedelic drugs for cancer patients.
Pahnke didn’t live long enough to appreciate the extent of his impact. On a clear July day in 1971, Pahnke, trying scuba diving for the first time, went underwater several feet from the shoreline rocks near his house. He never came back up. Gervasi believes she can identify the spot where he went under based on old photographs Pahnke’s now adult daughter gave her.
“There was quite a rescue effort, but nothing was ever discovered,” Gervasi said. “Nothing at all.”
The filmmaker acknowledges that there has since been “wild speculation” about what became of the 40-year-old Pahnke — “that he went underwater and ran away to somewhere, or that he took his own life.” But after traveling the country extensively researching the man, Gervasi has joined the many who believe Pahnke simply died in a tragic diving accident.
‘A heroic James Dean sort’
In the years before his disappearance, Pahnke worked during the week at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. Then, famously clad in black leather, he would ride his motorcycle to Georgetown on weekends. A contemporary of 1960s LSD experimentation guru Dr. Timothy Leary, Pahnke would stay for a few days at a time with his wife and three kids, enjoying the natural privacy of Maine’s coast.
“I sort of see Wally as a heroic James Dean sort,” said Gervasi of the enigmatic doctor.
Pahnke was fixated on the connections between “mystical” religious experiences and psychedelic drugs. He became a certified minister, physician and psychiatrist through Harvard University’s prestigious academic programs.
He was best known for what’s called the “Good Friday Experiment,” conducted in April 1962 as part of his doctoral thesis on religion.
Prior to the Good Friday service at the Boston University Marsh Chapel that year, volunteer divinity students from the Boston area split into two groups. The members of one group were given doses of psilocybin — a drug produced by hallucinogenic mushrooms — while members of the other group were given placebos.
Nine out of the 10 students given the psychedelic drug reported “profound religious experiences,” offering Pahnke what he took to be empirical evidence that psilocybin is a reliable trigger for spiritual awakenings.
Pahnke’s experiment fell under the umbrella of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, run in part by Leary, who was on the school’s faculty at the time. But further studies like the “Miracle at Marsh Chapel” would soon be blacklisted.
Harvard fired Leary and fellow researcher Richard Alpert in the face of accusations that their work was “unscientific and irresponsible,” according to an account published in the Harvard Crimson.
Leary and Alpert rose in prominence as the 1960s grew into a decade known for its cultural divisions and controversies over drug use.
In a front page editorial at the time, the school newspaper exemplified the growing institutional sentiment against the type of research Pahnke was most interested in, writing that “Harvard has disassociated itself not only from flagrant dishonesty but also from behavior that is spreading infection throughout the academic community.”
Psilocybin was soon declared to be a dangerous substance and outlawed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.
‘Frozen in time’
In 1963, as Harvard cut ties with his increasingly famous mentors, Pahnke traveled to Europe to pursue his interests. William Richards met Pahnke in Germany that year at a clinic run by Dr. Hanscarl Leuner, who Richards recalled as “one of the primary European researchers of psychedelic substances at the time.”
Richards and Pahnke became close friends and colleagues. Richards wrote in an e-mail to The Times Record that Pahnke was the best man at his wedding in 1966. In 1967, the two moved together to Baltimore to work on federally funded investigations of psychedelics. In 1971, Richards spoke at Pahnke’s memorial service.
“Wally was an exceptionally brilliant man with impeccable integrity,” wrote Richards in the e-mail. “He was intensely interested in the interface between psychiatry and spirituality.”
Gervasi noted that it has taken decades for scientific research into psychedelic drugs to become acceptable again, and “even now, it remains controversial.”
In 2006, Richards was part of a Johns Hopkins University team that built off Pahnke’s Good Friday Experiment. According to a university announcement at the time, researchers completed a landmark study showing that psilocybin triggers “spiritual experiences descriptively identical to spontaneous ones people have reported for centuries.”
“A vast gap exists between what we know of these drugs — mostly from descriptive anthropology — and what we believe we can understand using modern clinical pharmacology techniques,” Dr. Roland Griffiths, a professor at the school, said in a statement at the time. “That gap is large because, as a reaction to the excesses of the 1960s, human research with hallucinogens has been basically frozen in time these last 40 years.”
Griffiths described the study as being a first step toward a greater understanding of how, in a tightly controlled setting, psychedelic drugs might be used to “ultimately help people.”
Now, said Richards, “the work (Pahnke) and I did with cancer patients in the late 1960s and early 1970s continues at Johns Hopkins,” where volunteers who have been diagnosed with cancer are sought for studies on psilocybin’s potential therapeutic effects.
Though the follow-up research was a long time coming, Richards said “his vision of the value of the responsible use of psychedelic drugs” and “the contributions he made in his brief life are profoundly valued by many.”
Looking back at Pahnke’s life, Richards described a risk-taker whose insistence on pushing the limits helped him break new scientific ground, but might also have killed him.
“He lived life ‘very fast,’ trying to squeeze as many experiences into a day as possible, as if he intuited somehow that his life would be briefer than he hoped,” Richards wrote in his e-mail to The Times Record. “Brilliant though he was, Wally was stupid and impulsive enough not to wait a few more minutes for his wife to join him, and to dive into the Atlantic alone in scuba gear. This was not a suicidal gesture — he was not depressed. After a history of accidents skiing, this appears to have been the ‘last straw.’ He continues to be loved and missed.”
By Seth Koenig, Times Record Staff
Thursday, June 24, 2010 2:10 PM EDT