John C Lilly (1915-2001)

John C Lilly, Santa Monica, April 1 1991 -photo: Allen Ginsberg, courtesy Stanford University Libraries / Allen Ginsberg Estate

John Cunningham Lilly died twenty years ago on this day. He was an American physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, psychonaut, philosopher, writer and inventor, and a member of a generation of counterculture scientists and thinkers that included Ram Dass, Werner Erhard and Timothy Leary, all frequent visitors to the Lilly home.

His best-known book, and his first mainstream work, setting the tone for his dual career as scientist and explorer of human consciousness is The Center of The Cyclone (1972). It tells the story of how he left mainstream science to become an explorer of the “far out places” of the human mind.

Lilly is (maybe? perhaps?)  best remembered for his pioneering  work in interspecies (human-dolphin) communication

Thomas Sebeok, distinguished professor of linguistics, (in 1963, reviewing his book, Man and Dolphin)  – “Like Blake’s Tiger, [sic] Lilly’s Dolphin is at once something less and something more than man, a visionary creature, symbol as well as thing. With this figure in a double narrative, on the level of science and on the level of myth, he has written a strange, irritating, anecdotal and provoking book”

Diana Reiss,  cognitive psychologist and marine mammal scientist, (quoted, in 2001, in Lilly’s New York Times obituary) – “”He got people really thinking about big brains in other body forms –  this thing that looked like a fish, but had this intelligence… [Editorial note – dolphins brains, it’s been observed, are noticeably larger than those of humans]… He was pretty far-reaching and pretty far out for a lot of people, but he really did stimulate a lot of research and ideas.”

Both for good and for ill –  Denise Herzing, Research Director, Founder of the Wild Dolphin Project, back in 2013, on Lilly – “He was a visionary, ahead of his time. But he really lost the scientific process and decided to go off and explore his own mind with drugs. It has held two-way work with dolphins back for two decades [Editorial note – now almost three decades] because people have been scared to death to be called another Lilly”.

Certainly Lilly’s fascination with, and deep experimentation with, LSD (and later ketamine)
– he even experimented giving dolphins LSD – led to an inevitable marginalization and ultimately dismissal from the orthodox scientific community. As early as autumn 1966, as Christopher Riley recounts in his engaging account of one of Lilly’s most notorious experiments, “Lilly’s interest in the speaking-dolphin experiment was dwindling. He quotes Margaret Lovatt, his committed, indeed ultra-committed, collaborator –  “It didn’t have the zing to it that LSD did at that time. And in the end the zing won.”



Lilly is also remembered as pioneer and inventor of floatation tank sensory deprivation. In fact, his engagement in dolphins, psychedelics, and sensory deprivation, go hand in hand. His development of the tanks dates back to as early as 1954, his strict scientist phase. Widespread commercial interest and use of the tanks, however, didn’t occur until 1972, when Glenn Perry, a computer systems programmer, began selling the first commercial tanks after having listened to and attended an inspiring five-day Lilly workshop.



From 2014 – Marshall Hammond in Reality Sandwich (sic) – “The Unlimited Mind of Doctor John C Lilly”

From two years later, Travis Kitchen in The  Baltimore Sun – “Escape From Planet Earth, Psychedelics, Religion and Outlaw Scientist John C Lilly”

Ahmed Kabil in Timeline, from that same year,”Meet the Psychedelics-Obsessed Scientist Who Wanted To Learn Dolphin’s Language'”

A rare 1971 interview with Lilly

Jeffrey Mishlove interviews Lilly in 1979 on his Thinking Allowed program (Lilly sporting a rather distinctive headgear!)  (here‘s a transcript)

Malcolm Brenner’s two-part interview from 1980 (“Your God Isn’t Big Enough”)  can be read here and here

Judith Hooper’s revealing 1983 interview for Omni

David Jay Brown and Rebecca McClen from their 1993 book, Mavericks of The Mind 

Two lectures by Lilly:

Lilly and his research was famously the model for the 1980 Ken Russell movie Altered States

and also, seven years earlier, Mike Nichols’ George C Scott vehicle, The Day of the Dolphin

John C Lilly’s papers are at Stanford University

oh, and don’t miss John C Lilly’s gloriously retro web-site (still up and running).

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