The English Countess Revolutionizing Psychedelic Drugs Research
An emerging body of scientific evidence suggests that recreational drugs like magic mushrooms could treat mental illness. And we have Amanda Feilding, a hippie aristocrat turned drug reformer, to thank for it.
Photo by Imogen Freedland
Amanda Feilding was 23 and tripping hard on acid when she lit one of her usual 20 cigarettes a day. Then a thought sprang into her head: This is really a disgusting habit. She quit smoking shortly afterwards, and has credited psychedelics with helping her kick the addiction since.
Half a century later, Feilding's suspicions appear to have been right on the money. In 2014, Johns Hopkins researchers administered psilocybin to longtime smokers to see if the psychedelic compound, which naturally occurs in magic mushrooms, helped with addiction. The results were staggering: 80 percent of the participants successfully stayed away from cigarettes after six months, compared to the 30 percent success rate of conventional treatments for smoking.
Feilding is unsurprised by these findings. "[Psychedelics] just give one the strength to carry out a decision that is common sense," she explains. Feilding would know—in the 60s, she was taking up to 250 milligrams of acid on consecutive days. "It was," she says with some understatement, "an LSD period."
Tanned from a recent work trip abroad, Feilding has the sensible long cardigan and kindly eyes you associate with a favorite aunt. We walk through the manicured gardens of the Beckley Park, her 400-acre family estate, tailed by a friendly white Japanese spitz called Luna. The estate doubles as the Beckley Foundation headquarters and is home to the remains of an ancient Saxon hunting lodge, three separate moats, and a family of very aggressive swans. Luna's nickname, Feilding informs me, is E—as in ecstasy—"because all she wants to do is make people happy!"
Now 74 years old, Feilding—whose full title is the Countess of Wemyss and March—is perhaps the only drug policy reformer who can trace her lineage to the Habsburgs and the illegitimate heirs of Charles II. She is also the unlikely invisible hand behind many of the headline-grabbing studies about how recreational drugs like cannabis, LSD, and MDMA may hold the key to treating everything from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and nicotine addiction. In fact, Feilding's drugs think tank and NGO, the Beckley Foundation, sponsored and supported the research from Johns Hopkins.
"I think Amanda's contribution had been enormous," says Professor Celia Morgan, a University of Exeter scientist who has worked with Feilding on studies exploring the side effects of medicinal cannabis and the effects of cannabis on creativity. "She has—with her cadre of scientist collaborators—been instrumental in driving the psychedelic renaissance, which is gaining increasing credibility in psychopharmacology."
The Johns Hopkins study is just one of Feilding's many contributions to the emerging field, which has evolved from amateur cosmonauts scribbling their discoveries on sites like Erowid and into the realm of credible scientific research. For decades, Feilding maintained a belief in the life-changing potential of drugs that most of us usually encounter within the confines of a night out or a post-club spliff.
"People really thought one was mad," she says. (Like a true blue aristo, Feilding has the delightful habit of saying "one" when she means "I.") "With the Beckley Foundation, people carried on thinking one was fairly on the mad side. But now people keep coming up to me and saying, 'We thought you were mad, Amanda, but now we see you were right all along!'"
Feilding describes her childhood at Beckley Park as tough and ramshackle. Despite the spectacular grounds, money was tight; she remembers her father as a diabetic painter who would forget to take his insulin and pass out in ditches. "We lived in this incredibly beautiful place, but it was pretty lonely."
As a child, she thought that going to a convent school would inject some excitement into her life—"naughty girls doing all sorts of naughty things, you know"—but she soon left after getting fed up with the nuns. "I won the Science Prize and I wanted books on Buddhism, but they wouldn't give them to me. I decided, enough."
At 16, Fielding set off from England with the vague intention of getting to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka. "I never got there because I had no money," she says. "I went with 20 quid or something." She got as far as the Middle East, where she lived with a Bedouin tribe in the desert and stayed in Cairo. "In those days, there weren't many young females traveling alone," she said. Wasn't she ever scared? "I was very apprehensive, all the time! But in a way, that's excitement... I think one learns more if one's on edge."
The 60s were only just beginning when she made it back to England and was introduced to acid. "I thought it was absolutely incredible," she says. "The mystical experience, the colors…" She found a cheap room overlooking the Thames in London, and it quickly became an LSD-fueled hub for the artsy bohemians of the era—Allen Ginsberg, in town for a poetry festival at the Royal Albert Hall, even crashed on her floor. "Sometimes there were 30 or 40 people all talking in this tiny little space at once," she says. "It was great fun."
Then disaster struck. A leery hanger-on in her social circle, she says, spiked her coffee with a huge quantity of acid in order to "take advantage" of her. "I had the worst trip you can imagine," she adds mildly. "It fairly shattered me."
She left London and went home to Oxfordshire to recover. Then a friend convinced her to come to a Ravi Shankar concert, where she met Bart Huges , a Dutch librarian who had trained as a doctor. Huges had a love of hallucinogens and a nose for science, and the two fell madly in love. "Through Bart, I got a passion for the scientific approach to understanding consciousness." She describes the time they spent together as "one of the best periods of my life."
Feilding remembers taking LSD on a daily basis together, playing endless games of Go, and pondering questions like: "How do you improve the world? How do you solve this problem of mankind?" During this time, Feilding became convinced that psychedelics and science were perfect bedfellows—and she felt sure that they could these drugs were key to better understanding the human mind.
Despite having a terrible experience on LSD, she would end up devoting much of her life researching it. "Obviously, when that happens, it's like a psychic wound. It does long-term damage. But one just has to learn to live with it and heal with it as best one can."
By 1967, both the US and the UK government banned LSD, and the drug quickly joined the ranks of heroin and cocaine. Feilding doesn't mince her words when it comes to current drug laws: "To have drug use as a crime is completely mad and immoral," she says. "To me, it's completely obvious that the control of your own consciousness, which is the very core of your being, is a private matter—so long as you're not doing something that is detrimental to others."
Still, it was obvious that Feilding had to keep her passion for psychedelics quiet. "The bank manager would have pulled your overdraft," she says. "The parents of your children's friends would have forbidden them to come and play with you. It was very taboo."
Instead, she channeled her energy into advocating for trepanning—a surgical procedure that involves drilling a small hole into the skull. The process, which was practiced from Neolithic times all the way up to the Middle Ages, is said to improve mental wellbeing, though there is little medical evidence to back this. Huges, along with Feilding's two subsequent partners, Joseph Mellen and her current husband James Charteris, have all undergone trepanation.
Not to be outdone, Feilding did it to herself in 1970 with a power drill, filming the whole process for a video art piece called Heartbeat in the Brain. Stills from the clip were later exhibited at PS1 in New York, where people fainted at the sight of Feilding sanguinely drilling into her own bleeding head. (The effect of trepanning, she says, were limited to subtle but distinct lift in energy.) As an artistic stunt, she also stood for Parliament under the platform "Trepanation for the National Health."
"No one thought art was taboo, so I wrapped it in art," she says. "In a funny sort of way, I started to use trepanation as a symbol of the value of altering consciousness."
But Feilding began to question the value of art as tool to change minds—not least because the media was usually disappointed when she refused to play the part of the batty artist. She says that she was once canceled from a news TV show for this reason: "At the last moment, the lawyer said, 'This girl comes over much too sane—we'll have an epidemic of trepanation and be sued!'"
Instead, Feilding founded the Beckley Foundation in 1998, pouring all her energy into the organization. She had watched the war on drugs unfold with horror, and became convinced that an evidence-based approach to drugs was necessary—and that scientifically demonstrating the potential benefits of these substances was paramount.
"I realized that it was only through science that one could overcome the taboo on these substances," she says.
"I've always been quite good at getting to people and persuading them," she explains of her role at Beckley: "I kind of machinate from behind. I get [scientists] together, I try to find the funding to finance them, I say what we should be looking at."
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Morgan recalls being introduced to Feilding by a coworker while they were both visiting Beckley. "I remember being very impressed by her sharp wit and clarity, and her eagerness to hear about our research and science in general," she says. Morgan is now collaborating with Feilding on a study exploring the effects of a cannabinoid drug in cigarette smokers.
Fielding's first breakthrough came thanks to a longstanding collaboration with Professor David Nutt, a scientist at Imperial College London. In 2011, Imperial researchers began publishing the results of brain scans of people on psilocybin. It paved the way for their groundbreaking 2016 Lancet study, which found that 67 percent of subjects with treatment-resistant depression found relief for a week after taking psilocybin, with 42 percent remaining free of depression three months later.
The sample sizes of both this study and the Johns Hopkins findings are unfortunately limited—Imperial had 12 subjects, while Johns Hopkins had 15. Is it too soon to draw any definite conclusions from this research? It is a criticism that Feilding is well aware of. "That's the problem!" she explains. "These studies show what could happen, but even then they are very expensive and getting ever more [so]."
Thanks to the restrictive laws around these controlled substances, it's difficult to get the approval to conduct these experiments—many of are Schedule 1 drugs that are deemed to have no medicinal value.
"To do scientific research with a Class A drug has vastly exaggerated costs," Feilding says. "There are only three places in England which have permission to store [such substances], and special people to count it and move it. I mean, really, it's available 50 yards away on the street."
Still, it seems like the tide is finally turning in Feilding's favor. Drugs like magic mushrooms, cannabis, and MDMA are gaining new credibility as potential treatments for psychological illness—even if it has taken the world decades to catch up to what Feilding intuited at the age of 23.
"I have a great faith in what I think is true, and this is why I'm staying on in the game."
"Fifty years of shouting into the abyss! I've got a sore throat from the effort," she laughs. "But I'm quite a fighter. I have a great faith in what I think is true, and this is why I'm staying on in the game."
She believes that, in time, science will find that these substances will not just provide the basis of cures for depression and addiction, but physiological illnesses like Alzheimers and dementia as well.
It's a scientific field of inquiry that would have been unthinkable after governments cracked down on drugs in the 60s and 70s. Morgan says that the change in conversation can be directly traced to the work that Feilding has done behind the scenes: "I think that Amanda does deserve more recognition for being one of the key agents in transforming the world into a place where psychedelic drugs are being taken seriously as treatments for mental health conditions—an idea which would have been met with laughter as little as ten years ago."
Right now, Feilding is working 15-hour days, seven days a week ("I haven't had a day off in as long as I can remember!") to fundraise, organize conferences, and collaborate on research that may one day change millions of people's lives for the better. It's a long way off from the dreamy teenage traveler who wandered the world and studied the mystics.
"I used to dream of watering the desert—saving the world. I see the human brain as the desert," she says. "I feel I was lucky enough to fall on the right knowledge at the right time, to see the immense potential of these compounds.
"I think we are absolutely at the foothills of understanding how they can be of benefit to humanity."