Erika Dyck – Right On in Saskatchewan

In Profiles by Steve Palmer1 Comment

The Current, CBC Radio: June 8th, 2015, Monday 9:23 a.m. [7:23 a.m. Central Time]

Anna Maria Tremonti: The connection to LSD and research goes beyond the saga at McGill in Canada to Saskatchewan. Erika Dyck is Canada Research Chair for the History of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.  We have reached her in Saskatoon.  Hello.

Erika Dyck:    Good morning, Anna Maria.

AMT:    The term psychedelic comes from Saskatchewan, doesn’t it?

Dyck:    It does, believe it or not.

AMT:    So, what’s the story?

Dyck:    The superintendent of one of the largest hospitals in North America at Weyburn was experimenting with LSD among other things, and he struck up a correspondence with Aldous Huxley and they decided that the sensations associated with an LSD reaction required a word, something to capture the sensations that you felt.  Aldous Huxley suggested it be phanerothyme, but Humphry Osmond responded saying, “Fathom hell or soar angelic, you’ll need a pinch of psychedelic,” and the word was later published in 1957 in the New York Academies of Sciences journal, and it was launched into the English lexicon.

AMT:    There you go.

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What is it about Canadian historians of medicine that every time you turn on CBC radio they are hitting home runs illuminating contemporary medical questions by recounting fascinating historical episodes, providing insightful context and offering up long-view thinking that invests current debates with critical wisdom?

In my recent memory we’ve had David Wright on Quirks and Quarks — a science show that almost never does history of science and medicine topics — get Bob McDonald to think about the history of Down’s Syndrome in a more complex way than he wanted to; Jackie Duffin provide As It Happens with hard, socially-anchored data collected over the long term to shed light on the mysterious and disturbing drug shortage problem in Canadian healthcare institutions; and Dyck herself treating Canada’s once-guru of the avant garde, Brent Bambury, to a look inside the history of psychedelic drug research on Day 6.

By engaging this panoply of exceptional historians of medicine, such high-profile shows on our venerable (if hurting) CBC Radio are giving the Canadian people their money’s worth.  There’s no better value than Erika Dyck, as listeners to The Current found out if they were lucky enough to be tuned into the special segment on new efforts to resume neurological and psychiatric research using LSD.


Anna Maria Tremonti:      So what does the history of psychedelic research in Canada look like?

Erika Dyck:      The work that I did really focussed on the Saskatchewan studies which became quite significant and internationally well located.  Of course, this was also the birthplace of Medicare and there was a lot of focus and attention on what was going on in Saskatchewan in the 1950s, health reforms among them.  So policy analysts, scientists, psychiatrists, psychologists and their students and their families came along to Saskatchewan, of all places, and one of the big draws was the LSD research that was taking place, particularly in the psychiatric hospitals but also in hospital wards.

AMT:     And what were they looking at at the time with that research?

Dyck:    There were two main arms to that research.  The one was to try to use LSD — and other hallucinogens, but really the focus at that time was on LSD — as a proxy or as a model psychosis; so a way to try to understand, for example, the experiences of schizophrenia or what it was like to have a psychotic episode.  Hallucinations were, of course, a key feature of this.  And to that end they encouraged psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and what they would describe as recovered patients to take LSD to try to gain some insight into what disordered thinking felt like.  They even had an architect take the drug and wander around the institution to try to understand whether this was in fact the best environment for housing people who were suffering from psychotic disorders.

AMT:      That’s really interesting.  So they weren’t giving it to the patients.  They were giving it to the people who treated the patients.

Dyck:     Right.  Certainly that was one of the main focuses, was kind of a chemically-inspired empathy.


I finally get to meet Erika Dyck at the recent Canadian Society for the History of Medicine conference in Ottawa, after being vaguely aware of her as a rising star in a history of medicine circuitry that I didn’t overlap with much: fairly contemporary North American topics, scientific research and pharmacology, popular culture overtones, American Association for the History of Medicine, and CSHM.

I knew she’d published a book, Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD from Clinic to Campus, with Johns Hopkins University Press, which impressed and intimidated me since they have incredibly high standards and tend to only publish stuff that has relevance to the history of science (as opposed to the kind of mushy social and political history of medicine and public health stuff that I was working on).  The Hopkins series is also, of course, part of the institutional apparatus that invented the modern discipline of medical history.  Erika also has a journal article in the Bulletin for the History of Medicine with one of my favourite titles ever: “Spaced Out in Saskatchewan” (confession: I only read the title).

One thing, the couple of times I saw her she looked really cool, and seemed to be getting along with everyone and casting a lot of sunshine.  Coming to know her a bit more in Ottawa, I’d have to say that my vague impressions were pretty accurate, but they hardly encompass the real person close up, who turns out to be a lot more substantial and multi-faceted.  Not to mention funny, with a great wit and a charm that I’ve already called “winning” elsewhere in this blog, and I’m sticking with it.

I’d just learned during the annual general business meeting that Dyck was the new co-editor of the society’s excellent journal, the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, along with Kenton Kroker of York University.  By this point I was also starting to realize the radical departures that she and her collaborators were up to in the history of mental health, having attended Megan Davies’ and Chris Dooley’s talks on their expansive CIHR-funded project, After the Asylum.

So I wasn’t surprised by Erika Dyck’s answers to my questions about the nature of her historical project, but I was still impressed.  She described her over-arching goal as marrying social justice with history in a scholarly and community-informed study of health and medicine and how it shapes ideas about citizenship.  As her record attests, she’s still invested in “standard history” in the sense of academic publications, but increasingly attracted to non-traditional forms of communication.

When I thought of a profile, I pegged Erika Dyck as a “mid-career” historian, based on the maturity of her publication record and evident stature in the profession.  But she’s actually still kind of a junior scholar in that the Hopkins book — a crowning achievement for many careers in history of medicine — was a reformulation of her 2005 dissertation.  Anyway, junior, senior, mid-career, whatever — Dyck is a dynamic and highly productive researcher.

She’s now well into a second project on the social, political and institutional history of eugenic sterilization in Western Canada that resulted in Facing the History of Eugenics: Reproduction, Sterilization and the Politics of Choice in Twentieth-Century Alberta, available from U of T Press.  A third project, on de-institutionalization of psychiatric institutions in Saskatchewan, is starting to show up in papers and publications that will shortly illuminate us on this chapter of a hugely important and largely untold story about Canadian healthcare.

Whether by luck, or just good instinct, Dyck’s earlier work on LSD research is hardly slipping into the past.  On the contrary, a new push among neuroscientists to overcome strict regulations prohibiting research on LSD and other psychedelics and to take up the promising studies of the 1950s and 1960s is making her expertise in greater demand than ever by the media.


Anna Maria Tremonti:    What else were they doing with [LSD]?

Dyck:     So, very quickly after that they also started looking at addictions research and here they focussed primarily on alcoholism.  And there are a lot of similarities with what your previous guests [the wonderfully named David Nutt, a professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College, London, and Mark Haden, chair of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies Canada] were saying in terms of some of the reasons why they were doing this.  Alcoholism was the main focus, and this was almost exclusively men.

(Aside) It was also illegal for women to drink in public places, so we may question why women were rarely diagnosed as alcoholics, but (laughs a little) …

The idea here was to try to encourage these men to see beyond themselves, to try to gain help.  They would get one dose — a rather massive dose — of LSD, and they were accompanied in a room with usually a psychiatrist or a psychologist and always a nurse, and often there might be someone else available to take notes.


What really makes me feel kinship with Erika Dyck is her strong attachment to the West, and more specifically to Saskatchewan, and her commitment to showing that it is, on the one hand, as much a place as any place, and on the other, a place of unique historical significance for itself, for Canada, for North America, and for the world.  This is something I feel passionate about, having spent most of my life on the margins of peripheries: first as an anglo-Montreal child of English immigrants, then as a “Come From Away” in St. John’s, Newfoundland, then writing on the history of “Latin America” from tiny Costa Rica. Now, as luck would have it, I’ve made my life in Windsor, Ontario, a periphery of the central province of a country that is itself a periphery to North America’s US core.

Frontiers, outposts — at least as interesting as anywhere else, and often, inevitably, in some ways, more so: less full of themselves, more critically observant of what’s happening in the metropole, aware of the symbolic and real discrimination they suffer and the lesser access they get to public resources and political power by virtue of not being in the centre.  Maybe most of all, places of great originality because of their very eccentricity, often the first sources of massive changes that acquire discernible shape in metropolitan guises.  The peripheral traces of these origins tend to be either over-looked completely or scarcely considered by scholars consumed by the centre, and their significance to global currents is one we, who find ourselves on the edge, can explore as specialist interlocutors.

Weyburn, SK, became the epicentre of psychedelic studies that had an impact in all kinds of domains, including even, for example, international law.  One of the reviewers of Dyck’s manuscript for Hopkins said her title was “dishonest” because it claimed too much for a local story.  Most of the international reaction, though, was “incredibly welcoming”, and some of her distant colleagues have told her that the book tells a story in a way that lets their students understand the relationship of their place, too, to larger issues.  Others just love the fact that a “tiny, off-the-trail” spot could play the big role that it did.

Originally from Saskatchewan, Dyck lived, studied and worked in Nova Scotia, Ontario and Alberta before coming home to a Canada Research Chair in 2008.  She talks about all the false assumptions that come from nationally bound histories, and how Canadianists do a disservice to themselves by creating artificial borders and then closing them off.  Health history and health policy history are informed by a “much larger set of issues and disasters”, as she puts it.  Driven to situate her Canadian stories in a wider context, she is embracing local history in a way that complicates the national narrative but also “pushes into a global discussion”.

Anyway, she points out, Alberta and Saskatchewan are no longer keywords that attract a dynamic readership.  Increasingly her students are not studying “Canadian history”, but creating a model of international scholarship that’s not ultimately about place, but part of an effort to get at universal ideas of being a citizen.


The Current, CBC Radio, June 8th, 9:28 a.m. [7:28 a.m. Central Time]

Erika Dyck:    As Mark was saying the set and setting were very important. They had actually learned from some of the peyote ceremonies, even those that had taken place in Canada among aboriginal practitioners, to really pay attention to some of the set and setting: carefully constructed space, often with fresh cut flowers, with music, usually classical.  This was before the days of psychedelic rock (laughs lightly).

But they would often use these things to distract people so that they were less anxious about what they might expect in the experience.  And they found that people did incredibly well.  Again this matches up with what Mark was explaining, in that people had a profound experience that I found, interviewing them even thirty-five or forty years later, they still regarded as a very profound spiritual, psychological and emotional experience that helped them to see outside themselves and sometimes helped them to kind of generate the will power to look for help.

AMT:    They say that one dose like that was more effective than ten years of therapy.

Dyck:    Absolutely.


Erika is starting to zero in on the local Canuck mythology about Medicare, which she thinks is “a stand-in for historical appreciation”.  She wants to start getting the community, students, and national and international scholars to know each other and work out ways to engage in a progressive critique of the Canadian medical system without fearing that it will help in its dismantling.  She thinks that, on the contrary, historical appreciation provides confidence about how things do change over time.  It’s a good time to re-evaluate medicare, in her view, with many of the leading actors in its creation now passed on.  We’re in a good position, “precisely because we have to relearn that history”.

The owl of Minerva, as Hegel put it, flies only at dusk — except today, that is, when she flies on the morning public airwaves.


Anna Maria Tremonti:   That’s extraordinary.  So, if that’s the case, why the 44-year chill?

Dyck:    Well I think your two previous guests have given some clues into that.  I’m a medical historian, I’m not a clinician, so I would say we need to look a little bit beyond the science as well.  I think perhaps a caution to the renaissance is, there were some significant splits also within the scientific community, and I think they were starting to work against each other and there was some serious conflicts there that we need to consider.  Sorry, I’m sort of moving toward the renaissance critique a little bit.

AMT:     (doesn’t interject, trusting that Dyck’s going somewhere good)

Dyck:     I think the crowd-source funding is really interesting and perhaps a necessary move at this point.  But I think one of the challenges that happened in the past as well [is this]: the pharmaceutical companies were in an awkward position in terms of supporting LSD or psychedelic research full stop.  But at the same time they were very much  invested in other drugs, drugs that we might think of as more typical, ones that you take for the rest of your life, particularly in psychiatry.  They had a huge investment in seeing LSD fail.

AMT:     (probably mouthing “thank you” through the glass to producer in control room for booking this guest)

Dyck:     And it’s interesting to see that the political economy, if we may say, of LSD hasn’t necessarily changed all that much.  One of the key people speaking out against LSD and supporting its regulation and its criminalization in Canada was Senator Molson, of course of the Molson brewing industry.  So I think that some of those tensions both politically and scientifically haven’t necessarily been broached yet.  There’s always been a current of enthusiasm for these drugs — as your other guests have indicated, this stems back thousands of years — but I’m not sure that we’ve really found the way to bridge the cultural and political and, dare I say, economic divide that might tip the scales.  I’m encouraged by some of the research and I hope that the evidence-based decisions will help to move this forward, but some of these are long-standing problems.

AMT:     That’s really fascinating. We are learning that all roads lead to politics, or being reminded perhaps.

Dyck:       (chuckles mischievously)


Erika Dyck’s performance on The Current was simply brilliant.  That is actually the verbatim, unexpurgated transcript of the interview, with about six minor tidies of “um’s” and a single double-back phrase repetition removed.  I spent a decade working in radio, writing scripts that tried to capture the way dialogue happens, and I studied the “expert interviews” closely enough to realize why they are so often duds.  It’s really tough for a scholar who is not a radio professional to avoid falling into involved analysis or over-description and come off sounding pedantic.  To be on mic, LIVE, in front of a mind-bogglingly huge audience (Tremonti’s show regularly gets 400,000 listeners, not including US border audience and podcasts), and stay true to your science while trying to be part of the show is brutally difficult, especially at seven in the morning on a Skype link from your kitchen.  Dyck was eloquent, pithy and agile.  She kept her focus throughout, even as she mapped where she wanted the interview to go, and never dropped her enthusiastic tone or sense of fun in the topic.

Think about it — better still, review the transcript.  Not only a fount of cool and significant knowledge, she situated Saskatchewan as a special place in the global history of science and progressive health reform.  We were treated to captivating social history vignettes of “straight” practitioners and researchers dropping acid to try to gain insight and empathy into the experience of the psych patient, and of the therapeutic setting where LSD was used to help alcoholics gain self-awareness and inner strength. In an entertaining and — yes — winning style, she touched on the way pathologies are gendered, and pointed to the importance of the spiritual healing practices of aboriginal peoples in the history of medical research and conventional medical recovery.   She even gave us a glimpse of the practitioner of oral history at work.

But finally, and most importantly, Dyck spoke smartly on the historical context that the other speaker-scientists might need to take into account in order to make evidence-based thinking succeed, ultimately ending with a clear-eyed critique of big pharma’s investment in seeing LSD fail in favour of perhaps less effective but more long-term, hence more profitable psych drugs.  Along the way, she managed to acknowledge and build on the contributions of the two scientists who had preceded her, but brought together their experiences and insights into a more realistic, historically-informed political argument about the need for solidarity among scientists and public support for policymakers in order to ensure research into LSD is properly resumed despite corporate and ideological resistance.

And all in 7 minutes.  That’s a tour de force.

After hearing it, I wrote to Erika to tell her that with communication skills like that she should think about doing us all (though not necessarily herself) a favour and going into politics.

I meant as a candidate.  I knew she was “into politics” from the way she told me during our meeting that social and cultural history needs to be political — that we need to find a “third way” to marry the history of health and medicine to the way things come together in the present.  I also find out that she’s been an organizer, and worked on three leadership campaigns.  And well, I noticed that she does kind of work the room in different conference settings.  No one tries to get away.

I wonder if Saskatchewan will become a crucible again for innovative progressive reform.  If it does, the rest of Canada probably won’t know it until it bursts onto the national stage.  Saskatchewan’s a “fly-over” province, Dyck points out to me, as she’d pointed out earlier that day to the new head of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada’s major academic funding agency), by way of underlining to him why the province doesn’t get its fair share of resources.

I duck my head a little at this, realizing that I’ve only ever flown over the place.  Now I want to go to Saskatchewan, or at the very least keep it in mind.


Anna Maria Tremonti:       Erika Dyck, thank you so much for your insights.

Dyck:       Thank you very much for having me.

AMT:       That is Erika Dyck.  She’s Canada Research Chair for the History of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, and she joined us from Saskatoon.

What do you think about this?  Go to our website, that’s ….

(author’s note: while there, you’d be wise to take some of the the profits of your taxpayer’s investment in knowledge-making by going to “Past Episodes” where you can listen for yourself to the entire, excellent segment, with Anna Maria Tremonti — the pride of Windsor, though of course doing the show from Toronto (but talking to experts on the periphery!) — at her best: “Scientists push to renew psychedelic drug research for psychiatry”, )


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