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Pahnke, Walter



  • Existence: Jan 18, 1931 - July 10, 1971

Biographical Information

Walter Norman Pahnke (1931-1971) was born on January 18, 1931, in Harvey, Illinois, to Ferol (Helfrich) and Walter Dorance Pahnke (1896-1985). He earned his Artium Baccalaureus (magna cum laude) from Carleton College in 1952, his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1956, his BD (cum laude) from Harvard Divinity School in 1960, and his PhD from Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1964. He designed and conducted the well-known “Good Friday Experiment” in April 1962 as part of his PhD research under advisors Timothy Leary ad Richard Alpert. This controlled experiment evaluated the potential of psilocybin to catalyze religious experiences. During his PhD work, he received a Sheldon Travelling Fellowship from Harvard, which allowed him to travel to Europe to train with Hanscarl Leuner at the University of Göttingen in Germany. In 1964, he undertook his psychiatric residency at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston, where he continued his research with psilocybin. In 1966, he joined the team at the Spring Grove State Hospital as a research psychiatrist in psychedelic therapy, where he oversaw the treatment of terminal cancer patients. In 1969, he was promoted to director of clinical sciences research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, where he conducted sessions with LSD and DPT on terminal cancer patients, alcoholics, and those diagnosed with severe neurosis. His primary research interests included psychopharmacology (especially psychedelic drugs in regard to psychotherapeutic usefulness, sociological abuse, and religious implications), psychiatric and ethical issues in the care of the dying patient, and the psychology of religion. Pahnke wrote extensively on the therapeutic use of LSD, including his seminal 1969 article "The Psychedelic Mystical Experience in the Human Encounter with Death." He was a Phi Beta Kappa member, a Kent Fellow, and an Ingersoll Lecturer at Harvard University. Pahnke was an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine when he passed away at the age of forty in a scuba diving accident in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Maine on July 10, 1971, leaving behind his wife, Eva, and three children. Pahnke was "admired by his friends for his boundless energy and enthusiasm and for the diversity of his interests."

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Collection on Belle Hancoff

 Collection — Box: 1
Identifier: MSP 103
Abstract This collection documents Belle Hancoff’s two LSD sessions guided by Walter Pahnke along with the help of Helen Bonny, as well as Pahnke’s discussion of Belle Hancoff’s battle with cancer in a letter to Lewis Hancoff. Stephen Hancoff discusses his mother’s illness in a response to Alexander Zaitchik’s article "lashback! Psychedelic Research Returns," and he also mentions his relationship to William Richards and Stanislav Grof.
Dates: 1968 - 2011