The Electric Elephant Acid Test

by Steve Sherman


In the spring of 1962, Oklahoma City received a new resident: an adolescent bull elephant named Tusko, brought over under the auspices of a prominent local psychiatrist. Acquired at the cost of $3,500 (roughly $27,000 today), he was shipped from the Phoenix area to Oklahoma City to be a companion for Judy, a popular female elephant at the then-named Lincoln Park Zoo. Within a few months, Tusko was pestering Judy so incessantly that she slammed him into a wall and broke off his left tusk. This did not faze Tusko, who had taken to mounting his mate. Besides providing company for Judy, Tusko was acquired with the intent of being a research subject for Dr. Louis Jolyon “Jolly” West.

Dr. West was researching musth, a phenomenon in which adolescent male elephants go through, what appears to be, temporary madness. A dark ooze secretes from around their ears. They stampede, stamp on humans, stomp on villages, charge at other elephants. Dr. West was a giant in 20th century psychiatry, spending his early career as head of the Department of Psychiatry, Neurology and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine. He reached that position the age of 29, an impressive feat even in an era when tenure was easier to come by. Born in Brooklyn in the 1920s to parents from the Russian Pale, West grew up very poor in Madison, Wisconsin. He was educated in the Midwest—working his way up at the universities of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota—before accepting the OU position in the 1954.

West was a man about Oklahoma City; he spoke at public functions for Phi Beta Kappa and hosted society dinners alongside his wife, Kathryn, (also an OU professor). He also made public his controversial opinions on matters of the day: In March of 1961 he wrote a lengthy op-ed in the Daily Oklahoman explaining his participation in a pro-sit-in rally held at the then-segregated lunch counter at the John A. Brown department store in downtown Oklahoma City—he felt compelled to do so after receiving “anonymous phone calls,” which one can reasonably assume were threats. Besides invoking the “Christian” and “democratic” principles in favor of integration, the bulk of his argument rests on the threat of communism: “Now,” writes Dr. West, “tales of racial discrimination in the United States are being used against us by the communists.”

The 1960s zeitgeist attracted West. His research interests included drugs, hypnosis, and mind control. By the late 1950s, Dr. West was one of three authors of a paper entitled “Brainwashing, Conditioning, and DDD (Debility, Dependency, and Dread),” which examined the psychiatry behind North Korean brainwashing tactics used on American POWs. West was a joint author of a 1967 paper on the psychobiology of racial violence, published the same year as the Detroit and Newark race riots. A 1969 paper entitled “Runaways, Hippies, and Marihuana [sic],” published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, was a reflection from Dr West’s and other psychiatrists’ time spent observing pot-smoking runaways in a Haight-Ashbury crash pad.

In 1962, LSD had yet to enter into the popular consciousness, figuratively and literally. This was still six years before the publication of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and four years before the drug’s prohibition. The drug was a curiosity of postwar researchers, some of whom argued for LSD’s therapeutic effects. In 1954, Time Magazine (of all publications) publicized certain scientific studies that showed how LSD could help psychiatric patients. As late as 1960, prominent researcher Dr. Sidney Cohen argued for LSD’s mental health benefits and  wrote that psychiatrists who use LSD in treatments of patients should take the drug themselves.

Cohen’s statements might explain why an ostensibly brilliant, socially aware, and forward-thinking man— OU’s Dr. West—would do something as ostensibly stupid as giving a captive Asiatic bull elephant a megadose of psychedelics.

Another story about a displaced animal in Oklahoma, this one aquatic:

According to the published paper recounting the Tusko experiment, Dr. West and his research team—Dr. Chester Pierce of the Veterans Administration Hospital and OU School of Medicine, and Warren Thomas of the Lincoln Park Zoo—sought to “induce experimentally a behavioral aberration that might resemble the phenomenon of going on musth.” Once induced, the elephant could be sedated and the scientists could observe the dark ooze which would hypothetically secrete from Tusko’s head. This could enlighten the researchers on the causes of musth, thus advancing a workable sedative to prevent elephants’ rage-induced destruction in Asia and Africa

The day before the experiment, Tusko was given a placebo control dose of penicillin via a compressed air rifle. After experiencing expected symptoms—“immediate startle response… 2 or 3 minutes of restlessness followed by normal behavior throughout the day”—the researchers prepared for the real deal. Eight o’clock the following morning—August 3, 1962—the researchers intravenously injected Tusko with 297 milligrams of LSD.

The immediate startle reaction followed, but matters quickly turned messy when Tusko stopped running and became unable to stand up. In the researchers’ words:

[Tusko’s] mate ( Judy, a 15-year-old female) approached him and appeared to attempt to support him. He began to sway, his hindquarters buckled, and it became increasingly difficult for him to maintain himself upright. Five minutes after the injection he trumpeted, collapsed, fell heavily onto his right side, defecated, and went into status eplilepticus.

The researchers appeared to have panicked after Tusko’s tongue turned cyanotic, signaling that his head was getting insufficient oxygen. They injected Tusko with 2,800 milligrams of promazine hydrochloride, what was then a popular schizophrenia treatment. Without any marked improvement, they tried pentobarbital sodium, an anesthetic (and also common lethal-injection drug). That didn’t work. Tusko died one hour and 40 minutes after LSD dosage.

Autopsy determined that death was caused by strangulation due to laryngeal spasm, though it is admittedly unclear whether the LSD or the other drugs (or a combination thereof) were the lethal agent(s). What is clear is that Tusko was intravenously dosed with enough LSD to induce a trip in at least 1,500 human adults taking the drug orally. All this, despite the fact that a bull elephant has the mass of roughly 40 humans. Simply put, that’s a lot of acid.

Dr. West’s paper, published in the prestigious journal Science, concludes that their findings “may prove valuable in elephant control work in Africa.” They also stated that as of 1960 there was no documented human death stemming from an LSD overdose. We can’t know for certain if LSD or the other drugs killed Tusko. But if we accept the authors’ claim, then let historical record show that before any human died from an LSD megadose, a bull elephant in Oklahoma sloughed his mortal coil while tripping his balls off. In their defense, Dr. West claimed he and Dr. Pierce had themselves taken acid before, and had injected LSD from the Tusko batch into one of the zoo’s “large cats” prior to the experiment.

Judy, Tusko’s mate, was ultimately unfazed by the tragedy. According to the Daily Oklahoman, she was at first disturbed but soon “went about her usual pursuits, eating hay, and bathing herself from a pool.”

Judy lived out a long life in what would soon be renamed the Oklahoma City Zoo, giving the occasional visitor a ride on her back. Dr. West lived out the rest of the 1960s in Oklahoma City and continued to make news. Following Jack Ruby’s assassination of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, Dr. West provided the expert psychiatric evaluation of Mr. Ruby. Concluding that Ruby was mentally ill (among other things, Ruby feared the death of 25 million Jews as the result of his actions), West advocated psychiatric treatment rather than the death penalty.

West remained an advocate of the African American civil rights struggle, defending participants in these protests as model citizens who display “no delinquency or antisocial behavior,” according to a 1964 Daily Oklahoman article. His other political work while at OU included spearheading a national psychiatrist campaign against the death penalty, advocating for less-stringent marijuana laws (though supporting LSD prohibition), and advising the national Peace Corps.

In 1969 he left OU for the University of California, Los Angeles in order to head that medical school’s department. He maintained throughout his life a Gump-like tendency to appear at the center of milestone events of American 20th century: He provided testimony at the Patty Hearst trial and also served on the board investigating the 1992 Los Angeles Race Riot.

Unlike Tusko, Dr. West made his own conscious choice to die. He was suffering from cancer and his wife had Alzheimer’s. In 1999, at his request, his son John gave him the fatal cocktail of pills, and he died presumably in the quiet at century’s end.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 4 Issue 14. July 15, 2013.