Emily Witt in The New Yorker:
In the fall of 1972, a psychiatrist named Salvador Roquet travelled from his home in Mexico City to the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, an institution largely funded by the United States government, to give a presentation on an ongoing experiment. For several years, Roquet had been running a series of group-therapy sessions: over the course of eight or nine hours, his staff would administer psilocybin mushrooms, morning-glory seeds, peyote cacti, and the herb datura to small groups of patients. He would then orchestrate what he called a “sensory overload show,” with lights, sounds, and images from violent or erotic movies. The idea was to push the patients through an extreme experience to a psycho-spiritual rebirth. One of the participants, an American psychology professor, described the session as a “descent into hell.” But Roquet wanted to give his patients smooth landings, and so, eventually, he added a common hospital anesthetic called ketamine hydrochloride. He found that, given as the other drugs were wearing off, it alleviated the anxiety brought on by these punishing ordeals.
Clinicians at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center had been studying LSD and other psychedelics since the early nineteen-fifties, beginning at a related institution, the Spring Grove Hospital Center. But ketamine was new: it was first synthesized in 1962, by a researcher named Calvin Stevens, who did consulting work for the pharmaceutical company Parke-Davis. (Stevens had been looking for a less volatile alternative to phencyclidine, better known as PCP.) Two years later, a doctor named Edward Domino conducted the first human trials of ketamine, with men incarcerated at Jackson State Prison, in Michigan, serving as his subjects. At higher doses, Domino noticed, ketamine knocked people out, but at lower ones it produced odd psychoactive effects on otherwise lucid patients. Parke-Davis wanted to avoid characterizing the drug as psychedelic, and Domino’s wife suggested the term “dissociative anesthetic” to describe the way it seemed to separate the mind from the body even as the mind retained consciousness. The F.D.A. approved ketamine as an anesthetic in 1970, and Parke-Davis began marketing it under the brand name Ketalar. It was widely used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, and remains a standard anesthetic in emergency rooms around the world.
Roquet found other uses for it. After his lecture in Maryland, he offered experiential training to the clinicians there. “I was introduced to the strangest psychoactive substance I have ever experienced in the 50 years of my consciousness research,” the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof recalls in “The Ketamine Papers,” a book edited by the psychiatrist Phil Wolfson and the researcher Glenn Hartelius.
More here. (Note: Thanks to Syed Tasnim Raza)