Dr. Walter Pahnke’s (not-so) long strange trip
Documentary filmmaker Susan Gervasi stands at the Georgetown site where noted
psychedelic drug researcher Dr. Walter Pahnke disappeared 39 years ago. Pahnke
entered the water to go scuba diving and never returned. Authorities presume that
(Troy R. Bennett / The Times Record)
Film explores local link to psychedelic drug guru
By Seth Koenig, Times Record Staff
Thursday, June 24, 2010 2:10 PM EDT
GEORGETOWN — Nearly 40 years after Dr. Walter Pahnke vanished off the
Georgetown coast, documentary filmmaker Susan Gervasi is retracing the steps of
the once controversial psychedelic researcher.
The Maryland woman visited the island town earlier this month, stayed in Pahnke’s
former waterfront home and interviewed local residents who remembered the
doctor’s disappearance in 1971.
The documentary comes as Pahnke’s legacy experiences a revival — decades after
backlash over recreational drug use made clinical use taboo. New research is now
being conducted to study the doctor’s theories about the therapeutic values of
psychedelic drugs for cancer patients.
Pahnke didn’t live long enough to appreciate the extent of his impact. On a clear July
day in 1971, Pahnke, trying scuba diving for the first time, went underwater several
feet from the shoreline rocks near his house. He never came back up. Gervasi
believes she can identify the spot where he went under based on old photographs
Pahnke’s now adult daughter gave her.
“There was quite a rescue effort, but nothing was ever discovered,” Gervasi said.
“Nothing at all.” The filmmaker acknowledges that there has since been “wild speculation”
about what became of the 40-year-old Pahnke — “that he went underwater and ran away
to somewhere, or that he took his own life.” But after traveling the country extensively
researching the man, Gervasi has joined the many who believe Pahnke simply died in
a tragic diving accident.
‘A heroic James Dean sort’
In the years before his disappearance, Pahnke worked during the week at the
Maryland Psychiatric Research Center. Then, famously clad in black leather, he would
ride his motorcycle to Georgetown on weekends. A contemporary of 1960s LSD
experimentation guru Dr. Timothy Leary, Pahnke would stay for a few days at a time
with his wife and three kids, enjoying the natural privacy of Maine’s coast.
“I sort of see Wally as a heroic James Dean sort,” said Gervasi of the enigmatic
Pahnke was fixated on the connections between “mystical” religious experiences and
psychedelic drugs. He became a certified minister, physician and psychiatrist through
Harvard University’s prestigious academic programs.
He was best known for what’s called the “Good Friday Experiment,” conducted in
April 1962 as part of his doctoral thesis on religion.
Prior to the Good Friday service at the Boston University Marsh Chapel that year,
volunteer divinity students from the Boston area split into two groups. The members
of one group were given doses of psilocybin — a drug produced by hallucinogenic
mushrooms — while members of the other group were given placebos.
Nine out of the 10 students given the psychedelic drug reported “profound religious
experiences,” offering Pahnke what he took to be empirical evidence that psilocybin is
a reliable trigger for spiritual awakenings.
Pahnke’s experiment fell under the umbrella of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, run in
part by Leary, who was on the school’s faculty at the time. But further studies like the
“Miracle at Marsh Chapel” would soon be blacklisted.
Harvard fired Leary and fellow researcher Richard Alpert in the face of accusations
that their work was “unscientific and irresponsible,” according to an account
published in the Harvard Crimson.
Leary and Alpert rose in prominence as the 1960s grew into a decade known for its
cultural divisions and controversies over drug use.
In a front page editorial at the time, the school newspaper exemplified the growing
institutional sentiment against the type of research Pahnke was most interested in,
writing that “Harvard has disassociated itself not only from flagrant dishonesty but
also from behavior that is spreading infection throughout the academic community.”
Psilocybin was soon declared to be a dangerous substance and outlawed by the U.S.
Drug Enforcement Agency.
‘Frozen in time’
In 1963, as Harvard cut ties with his increasingly famous mentors, Pahnke traveled to
Europe to pursue his interests. William Richards met Pahnke in Germany that year at
a clinic run by Dr. Hanscarl Leuner, who Richards recalled as “one of the primary
European researchers of psychedelic substances at the time.”
Richards and Pahnke became close friends and colleagues. Richards wrote in an e-
mail to The Times Record that Pahnke was the best man at his wedding in 1966. In
1967, the two moved together to Baltimore to work on federally funded investigations
of psychedelics. In 1971, Richards spoke at Pahnke’s memorial service.
“Wally was an exceptionally brilliant man with impeccable integrity,” wrote Richards
in the e-mail. “He was intensely interested in the interface between psychiatry and
Gervasi noted that it has taken decades for scientific research into psychedelic drugs
to become acceptable again, and “even now, it remains controversial.”
In 2006, Richards was part of a Johns Hopkins University team that built off Pahnke’s
Good Friday Experiment. According to a university announcement at the time,
researchers completed a landmark study showing that psilocybin triggers “spiritual
experiences descriptively identical to spontaneous ones people have reported for
“A vast gap exists between what we know of these drugs — mostly from descriptive
anthropology — and what we believe we can understand using modern clinical
pharmacology techniques,” Dr. Roland Griffiths, a professor at the school, said in a
statement at the time. “That gap is large because, as a reaction to the excesses of
the 1960s, human research with hallucinogens has been basically frozen in time
these last 40 years.”
Griffiths described the study as being a first step toward a greater understanding of
how, in a tightly controlled setting, psychedelic drugs might be used to “ultimately
Now, said Richards, “the work (Pahnke) and I did with cancer patients in the late
1960s and early 1970s continues at Johns Hopkins,” where volunteers who have been
diagnosed with cancer are sought for studies on psilocybin’s potential therapeutic
Though the follow-up research was a long time coming, Richards said “his vision of
the value of the responsible use of psychedelic drugs” and “the contributions he
made in his brief life are profoundly valued by many.”
Looking back at Pahnke’s life, Richards described a risk-taker whose insistence on
pushing the limits helped him break new scientific ground, but might also have killed
“He lived life ‘very fast,’ trying to squeeze as many experiences into a day as possible,
as if he intuited somehow that his life would be briefer than he hoped,” Richards
wrote in his e-mail to The Times Record. “Brilliant though he was, Wally was stupid
and impulsive enough not to wait a few more minutes for his wife to join him, and to
dive into the Atlantic alone in scuba gear. This was not a suicidal gesture — he was
not depressed. After a history of accidents skiing, this appears to have been the ‘last
straw.’ He continues to be loved and missed.”