March 27, 2022   •   By Benjamin Breen

IN 1716, the Portuguese apothecary João Vigier described a rare drug known as Balsamum Judaicum. The balsam had once grown throughout the Valley of Jericho, where — by Vigier’s account, at least — it was prized for its ability to counteract the effects of poison, and to “comfort the brain” and “excite semen.” The Ottoman sultan, however, established a monopoly, and so the plants were now found exclusively “in [the sultan’s] gardens in the populous city of Grand Cairo, where they are guarded carefully by his Janissaries.” [1]

To the reader of Dune (1965), this anecdote will sound familiar. It’s a short hop from Vigier’s balsam to the spice melange of the planet Arrakis, with its monopoly enforced by the elite shock troops of a Padishah emperor. The brain-enhancing Juice of Sapho, treasured by the Mentats who constitute the book’s intellectual elite, is another fictional drug that Vigier, one suspects, would have found entirely plausible.

The pharmacology of Frank Herbert’s fictional universe is, itself, a melange. Orientalist European accounts of Middle Eastern drug culture (and the imperial misdeeds of the early modern spice trade) provide one building block for Dune’s memorable theme: “He who controls the Spice controls the universe.” But the book also elaborates on the druggy preoccupations of midcentury science fiction, with its pervasive Cold War influences.

One example: L. Ron Hubbard’s most famous spacefaring hero, Ole Doc Methuselah, was in the habit of shooting “spray-fog” plumes of futuristic sedatives at his opponents. [2] Old Doc was not alone. Inspired by real-life accounts of chemical warfare and early reports of mescaline, 1950s science fiction abounded with truth serums, cognition-enhancing stimulants, and “hypno-drugs.”

Herbert’s bucket of drugs also drew from a deeper well: ethnobotany. Much of the lore of Dune grew out of his failed effort, in 1957, to write a nonfiction piece on sand dune remediation in Oregon. According to one account, this was when Herbert began experimenting with psilocybin mushrooms, which grow extensively along the Oregon coast. Whether or not this is true — and it’s worth noting that the only evidence for it comes from the mycologist Paul Stamets’s report of a conversation with Herbert in the 1980s — the timing makes sense.

As a journalist in the late 1950s with an interest in both drugs and Indigenous societies, Herbert could hardly have failed to notice R. Gordon Wasson’s blockbuster 1957 Life magazine article, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” After describing his psychedelic encounter with the curandera María Sabina, Wasson indulges in mystical speculation about evolutionary processes of the sort Herbert would echo in the next decade. Could ancient Homo sapiens have unlocked mind-expanding new vistas of space and time when they discovered “the secret of the hallucinatory mushrooms,” Wasson wondered.

By vividly depicting a world in which a psychedelic drug shaped both evolution and landscapes on a planetary scale, Herbert crystallized a largely forgotten moment in the culture of the Cold War. In the 1950s and early 1960s, psychedelic drugs — and Herbert’s spice is indeed psychedelic — were not yet countercultural. Instead, they were high-tech in an anthropological sense, operating simultaneously as pseudo-shamanic relics and as time capsules from a fast-approaching future.

When Herbert sent an early draft of Dune to his agent in 1963, he received warm praise along with a complaint: “There isn’t much science here.” [3] Herbert disagreed. It was simply that the science was ecology rather than rocketry. What was new about his book, Herbert wrote, was that “human individuals are treated as ecological tools.[4]

Both the early modern pharmacy of Vigier and the Cold War world of the sci-fi pulps failed to see drugs in anything but materialist terms. By the late 1950s, however, some psychedelic researchers — Frank Herbert among them — had begun to map a different terrain that drew on Indigenous epistemologies of drugs as active ecological agents while also pointing toward techno-utopian dreams of drugs as aids to space travel.

It is no coincidence that the 1960 coinage cyborg (short for “cybernetic organism”) originally accompanied a plan for future astronauts to wield built-in reserves of “psychic energizer” drugs. [5] Dune marked a moment when this approach to experimental drugs entered pop culture. In rethinking science fiction from the perspective of human individuals “as ecological tools,” Herbert helped push pharmacology in the same direction.


Art by Kenneth Mills.


Benjamin Breen is the author of The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), winner of the 2021 William H. Welch Medal from the American Association for the History of Medicine. He is an associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is currently working on a book about psychedelic therapy and experimental drugs during the Cold War.


[1] João Vigier, Pharmacopea Ulyssiponense, galenica e chymica (Lisbon, 1716), 395.

[2] René Lafayette (L. Ron Hubbard), “A Sound Investment,” Astounding Science Fiction (June 1949), 47. In a striking coincidence, a team at the CIA in 1950 developed an actual device they called the “hypospray,” which used “jet injection” to covertly administer drugs. See the April 8, 1953 CIA memo “Subject: ARTICHOKE; Evaluation of Hypospray,” C00149553 [].

[3] Lurton Blassingame to Frank Herbert, April 5, 1963, as transcribed in The Road to Dune.

[4] Herbert to Blassingame, April 1963, in The Road to Dune.

[5] Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, “Cyborgs and Space,” Astronautics (September, 1960), 26–27, 75–76.