Hofmann was born in Baden, Switzerland, the first of four children to factory toolmaker Adolf Hofmann and his wife Elisabeth (born Elisabeth Schenk). Owing to his father’s low income, Albert’s godfather paid for his education. When his father became ill, Hofmann obtained a position as a commercial apprentice in concurrence with his studies. At the age of twenty, Hofmann began his chemistry degree at the University of Zürich, finishing three years later, in 1929. His main interest was the chemistry of plants and animals, and he later conducted important research on the chemical structure of the common animal substance chitin, for which he received his doctorate with distinction in 1929.

Regarding his decision to pursue a career as a chemist, Hofmann provided insight during a speech he delivered to the 1996 Worlds of Consciousness Conference in Heidelberg, Germany:

One often asks oneself what roles planning and chance play in the realization of the most important events in our lives. […] This [career] decision was not easy for me. I had already taken a Latin matricular exam, and therefore a career in the humanities stood out most prominently in the foreground. Moreover, an artistic career was tempting. In the end, however, it was a problem of theoretical knowledge which induced me to study chemistry, which was a great surprise to all who knew me. Mystical experiences in childhood, in which Nature was altered in magical ways, had provoked questions concerning the essence of the external, material world, and chemistry was the scientific field which might afford insights into this.

Discovery of LSD

Hofmann became an employee of the pharmaceutical/chemical department of Sandoz Laboratories (now a subsidiary of Novartis), located in Basel as a coworker with professor Arthur Stoll, founder and director of the pharmaceutical department.

He began studying the medicinal plant Drimia maritima (squill) and the fungus ergot, as part of a program to purify and synthesize active constituents for use as pharmaceuticals. His main contribution was to elucidate the chemical structure of the common nucleus of the Scilla glycosides (an active principal of Mediterranean squill). While researching lysergic acid derivatives, Hofmann first synthesized LSD on 16 November 1938. The main intention of the synthesis was to obtain a respiratory and circulatory stimulant (analeptic) with no effects on the uterus in analogy to nikethamide (which is also a diethylamide) by introducing this functional group to lysergic acid. It was set aside for five years, until 16 April 1943, when Hofmann decided to reexamine it. While re-synthesizing LSD, he accidentally absorbed a small amount of the drug through his fingertips and discovered its powerful effects. He described what he felt as being:

… affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated[-]like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.

« Bicycle Day »

Three days later, on 19 April 1943, Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD. This day is now known as « Bicycle Day », because he began to feel the effects of the drug as he rode home on a bike. This was the first intentional LSD trip.

Hofmann continued to take small doses of LSD throughout much of his life, and always hoped to find a use for it. In his memoir, he emphasized it as a « sacred drug »: « I see the true importance of LSD in the possibility of providing material aid to meditation aimed at the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality. »