Ketamine – biography of a space agent

Ketamine is both a powerful hallucinogenic drug and an effective anaesthetic that can create striking out-of-body experiences.

The history of ‘Taming the Ketamine Tiger’ is recounted by the doctor who has been most involved in researching and understanding the curious compound in an open-access article published in Anesthesiology.

The author is the wonderfully named Edward Domino who was one of the first people to study both the pain killing and mind bending effects of ketamine.

His article recounts the history of the compound from its discovery, to its use in surgery, to its deployment in the Vietnam war and its championing by the consciousness exploring counter-culture.

The paper is written for fellow pharmacologists and so has some fairly technical parts (the section ‘Ketamine Pharmacology’ is probably best skipped if you’re not into the gritty details of how it affects the body and brain) but also has some wonderful personal recollections and anecdotes from the drug’s history.

About 1978, the prominent physician, researcher, and mystic John C. Lilly, M.D. (1915–2001), self-administered ketamine to induce an altered state of consciousness. He summarized his many unique experiences as “a peeping Tom at the keyhole of eternity.” These included sensory deprivation while submerged in a water tank, communication with dolphins, and seduction by repeated ketamine use.

In 1978, Moore and Alltounian reported on their personal ketamine use. Marcia Moore was a celebrated yoga teacher, Howard Alltounian, M.D., a respected clinical anesthesiologist. They reportedly got high on ketamine together and after two ketamine “trips” fell in love and became engaged after 1 week. They felt they were “pioneering a new path to consciousness.” Ms. Moore was called the priestess of the Goddess Ketamine. She took the drug daily and apparently developed tolerance.

For her, ketamine was a seductress, not a goddess. Her husband warned her of its dangers. She slept only a few hours each night. She agreed that she was wrong about a lot of things and was “going to stay with it until it is tamed.” However, Moore was unable to tame the ketamine tiger and in January 1979 disappeared. The assumption was that she injected herself with ketamine and froze to death in a forest.

You can read the full article here although it’s not clear to me that the link is stable enough to be archived, in which case the DOI entry points here although you may need to do some clicking through to find the full text.

Anyway, a fascinating look back at a complex compound from the man at the centre of its science.

Link to ‘Taming the Ketamine Tiger’ in Anesthesiology.
Link to DOI entry for same.

5 thoughts on “Ketamine – biography of a space agent”

  1. It’s interesting how enamoured people are with this drug. In veterinary practice an increasing number of doctors, especially pain management specialists, object to its use in cats because of the horrid hallucinations and shuffling behaviors we see. It is not considered a “smooth” recovery in any case and my cat especially had a bad reaction to it (although he already has a seizure disorder). I subsequently assumed humans would have a bad trip as well.

    1. I think that says a great deal about the extent to which we can apply animal findings to humans.

      That is most certainly not to say that it is safe but that our understanding of psychological effects must be based on observation of humans, not animals.

    2. whaaat?? you can have a seriously bad trip on K, it happens all the time, even with the same people and the same stuff, if you’re going to use K for fun you have to be careful or you will end up like the cat, seriously.

  2. Wallace D Winters studied K neuropharmacology. Describes it as not being an anesthetic agent. It produces elevation in blood pressure, muscle relaxation, and hallucinatios. It increases discharge in amygdaloid nuclei but not analgesia. After the acute effect, amnesia.

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