Did You Know?: Psychoactive Substances Research Collection

February 6, 2015  

Stephanie Schmitz

Stephanie Schmitz, the France A. Córdova Archivist, appears in the vault of the Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center where materials in the Psychoactive Substances Research Collection are stored. (Purdue University photo/Charles Jischke)
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Housed in the Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center is a collection about research that was essentially prohibited for four decades, yet has now made a significant resurgence.

The Psychoactive Substances Research Collection began in 2006 as a collective effort between Purdue pharmacology professor David Nichols, the Purdue University Libraries and the Betsy Gordon Foundation. Nichols, who retired from Purdue in 2012, was the Robert C. and Charlotte P. Anderson Distinguished Chair in Pharmacology and a distinguished professor of medicinal chemistry. He has been considered one of the world's top experts on psychedelics, which is one of the reasons he encouraged Purdue Libraries to preserve research from the field of psychoactive drugs.

Through funding by the Betsy Gordon Foundation, the Psychoactive Substances Research Collection brings together primary source materials that document the lives and work of researchers in the field. These sources include, but are not limited to, manuscripts, research notes, correspondences, photographs and artifacts. In addition to the researchers' work, firsthand accounts from the research participants are also contained in the archives.

"Materials for this collection are typically acquired from chemists, pharmacologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists and other researchers who have worked firsthand with psychedelic substances," says Stephanie Schmitz, the France A. Córdova Archivist. "We do a lot of outreach for this collection so that others are aware of its existence."

One of the first collections acquired by Purdue Libraries was the Stanislav Grof papers. Grof, who's known as the founder of transpersonal psychology, is highly regarded in the psychoactive research field. According to Schmitz, Grof's reputation and recommendation to other psychoactive substances researchers has been invaluable to the preservation of the field at the Purdue Libraries.

Walter Pahnke papers

Materials from the William Richards Collection of Walter Pahnke papers housed in the Psychoactive Substances Research Collection. (Purdue University photo/Charles Jischke)
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The Psychoactive Substances Research Collection's home page states the focus of the collection is to "[document] the history of psychoactive substances and their applications for medicine and healing." Although research into the healing properties of psychoactive substances began in the 1950s, it was halted in the 1970s due to the developing counterculture and misuse of the substances. However, legitimate research has now been occurring for over a decade with a focus on using psychoactive drugs to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety associated with life-threatening illnesses, autism, alcohol dependence, tobacco addiction and various mood disorders.

Recently, clinical studies have demonstrated that psilocybin, a classical psychedelic agent, is efficacious in treating end-of-life anxiety and depression. Small pilot studies have also demonstrated that psilocybin appears to have efficacy in treating alcohol and nicotine dependence. Current researchers are optimistic that eventually psychedelics will be approved as medicines, ending a decades-long prohibition against their use.

"A lot of scientists and psychotherapists who were active in this area of research in the 1960s and early 1970s are growing older and beginning to look for a repository that will care for and make accessible their life's work," Schmitz says. "It is my hope that present-day research happening in this current 'psychedelic research renaissance' will also make its way to the archives someday too."  

Those interested in learning more about the Psychoactive Substances Research Collection or viewing its materials are welcome to visit the Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Writer: Kourtney Freiburger, 49-62993, kfreibu@purdue.edu

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