Photo by: University Archives and Special Collections and Joe Tompai, Light and Line Productions.
“When he lectured, he wore a borcellino [wide-brimmed felt hat] and would hold the butt of a cigar, or a small piece of a cigar, either in his hands or clenched between his teeth as he paced back and forth on the platform,” recalls June Blewett, Duncan Blewett’s widow and long-time academic colleague.
“It was an extraordinary sight to behold.” Duncan Blewett’s career spanned pioneering psychedelic research at the Saskatchewan Hospital in Weyburn, founding the psychology department at the newly independent University of Regina, and writing books and publications that continue to influence the field today. “His 100-level classes were filled,” says June, the first woman to earn a doctoral degree from the Regina campus.
He bridged the “enormous distance” between student and professor, and enjoyed teaching such classes in belief systems even at the 100-level. “He loved teaching first-year students and making psychology come alive,” she adds, “plugging it back into each students’ experience.” When he died on February 24, he counted among his friends many of the great psychologists, artists, and philosophers of his time. His early work has been the subject of at least three documentaries, and a fourth was created around his March 24 memorial on Gabriola Island, B.C.
His favorite saying was to keep “both feet firmly planted in the air,” remembers June. She quotes University of West Georgia psychology professor Larry Schorr: “He wasn’t just a therapist; he was therapy.” Duncan Blewett was born in Edmonton, and was a graduate of the University of British Columbia. He earned his PhD in one and a half years at the University of London with renowned psychologist Hans Eysenck. He also taught at the University of Illinois, headed by noted psychologist Raymond Cattell, before the government of Saskatchewan recruited Blewett to be chief psychologist of the province in the 1950s.
He became supervising psychologist for the government’s Psychiatric Services Branch. As such, he joined the world-renowned University of Saskatchewan research team at the Saskatchewan Hospital in Weyburn and worked beside such notable researchers as biochemist and psychiatrist Abram Hoffer, and project coordinator Humphry Osmond (who coined the word “psychedelic” in a letter to his friend Aldous Huxley).
As well as being the first clinical psychologist for the province of Saskatchewan, Blewett was the founder and first chairman of the psychology department at the University of Regina (then the University of Saskatchewan, Regina Campus). He was also a founder of the Saskatchewan Psychological Association. Along with Nicholas Chwelos, Blewett co-authored Handbook for the Therapeutic Use of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide-25: Individual and Group Procedures (1959).
The handbook offered a scientific approach to control studies into the therapeutic possibilities of using LSD in the treatment of mental illness and alcoholism, theorizing that treatment improved by increasing the patients’ understanding of themselves and realization of their individual potential. The handbook influenced later studies by Timothy Leary and others at Harvard University in the United States. Blewett is sometimes referred to as the Canadian Timothy Leary, says Pat Barber, who writes of the research in his MA thesis “Chemical Revolutionaries: Saskatchewan’s Psychedelic-related experiments and the work of Abram Hoffer, Humphrey Osmond, and Duncan Blewett.” Blewett’s approach became more spiritual, Barber adds, but unlike Leary he remained concerned that LSD studies should receive scientific recognition as a valid therapeutic method.
The research developed from a model based on brain chemistry, and these researchers wanted to “chart new destinations” for it. His clinical work often took him into situations that challenged him personally, such as a 30-day study of volunteers he undertook at the Regina jail. In that atmosphere, the work was criticized because of reliance on personal observations and lack of follow-up studies, mainly resulting from lack of funding, Barber says. However, this research helped better the state of mental health care in the province, challenged research methods, and contributed to an understanding of the human psyche.
Blewett was an advocate of
controlled experiments in a safe
environment, and the therapeutic
possibilities that arise from such
scientific study. He wanted it to be
“acknowledged within the
psychological profession and the wider
scientific community,” Barber says.