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John Raymond Smythies

BMJ 2019; 365 doi: (Published 26 April 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l1873
  1. Paul D McGeoch,
  2. VS Ramachandran

John Raymond Smythies, a British psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and psychedelic pioneer, who spent much of his professional life in the US, died in La Jolla, San Diego, at the age of 96. Smythies was born in Nainital, British India, but as a young boy he was sent to attend school in England. He obtained his medical degree in 1945 from Cambridge, having studied at Christ’s College, with the clinical years spent in London. After two years as a Royal Navy surgeon aboard HMS Porlock Bay in Bermuda, he returned to train as a psychiatrist at St George’s Hospital in London.

It was during this period that he became aware both of the old German literature on the hallucinogenic effects of the peyote cactus derivative mescaline, and also the striking structural similarities between it and a metabolite of adrenalin called adrenochrome. He introduced these ideas to his then senior registrar, Humphrey Osmond, and together they developed and proposed what was the first biochemical theory of schizophrenia—the transmethylation hypothesis. Although ultimately not substantiated, their theory was a paradigm shift in our thinking about psychiatric disease and heralded the modern era of biochemical psychiatry.

The intention back then had been to use psychedelics like mescaline and, …

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