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Richard Alpert (Ram Dass): Harvard psychologist who experimented with psychedelic drugs and became one of America’s most prominent and respected spiritual leaders

BMJ 2020; 368 doi: (Published 31 January 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;368:m407
  1. Rebecca Wallersteiner
  1. London, UK
  1. wallersteiner{at}
Credit: Dassima Kathleen Murphy

Nothing in Richard Alpert’s early life could have predicted that he would come to embody the spirit of the psychedelic 1960s. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the youngest of three sons, to George and Gertrude (Levin) Alpert. His father, a prominent lawyer in Boston, was a founder of Brandeis University and went on to become president of the New York and New Haven Railroad. Alpert had a bar mitzvah but did not show much interest in religion in his youth. He attended Williston Northampton School, graduating in 1948. His father wanted him to become a doctor, but Alpert failed to get into medical school and instead studied psychology, gaining a doctorate at Stanford University.


On moving to Harvard in 1961, he taught and researched at the department of social relations and the graduate school of education and was popular with his students. It was at Harvard that he befriended the charismatic Timothy Leary, a countercultural icon, who was lecturing in clinical psychology. Continuing his early work at the University of California, Berkeley, Leary was carrying out research on psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient in some species of mushrooms, to see if they could be beneficial in the clinical treatment of schizophrenia. He invited some friends, including Alpert and the poet Allen Ginsberg, to experiment with 10 mg doses of psilocybin. Alpert later related that the transcendent effect of psychedelic drugs had caused him to question consciousness and the very basis of his life. He collaborated on Leary’s Harvard psilocybin project, giving the drug, and later LSD, to students, ministers, musicians, and prisoners. While …

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