LOS ANGELES — Dr. John Cunningham Lilly, who championed the study of interspecies communications during a career that probed the mystery of human consciousness, has died. He was 86.
Lilly died Sunday of heart failure at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, his family said.
An inventor, author and researcher, Lilly was a member of a generation of counterculture scientists and thinkers that included the likes of Ram Dass, Werner Erhard and Timothy Leary, all frequent visitors to the Lilly home. He never failed to stir controversy, especially among mainstream scientists.
“There were those who thought he was brilliant, and there were those who just thought he was insane. I, of course, thought he was a little bit of both,” said Jennifer Yankee Caulfield, who worked on a Lilly-led project in the early 1980s to teach dolphins a computer-synthesized language.
Lilly first gained renown in the 1950s, for his development of the isolation tank. Lily saw the tanks, in which users are isolated from almost all external stimulus, as a means of exploring the nature of human consciousness.
He later combined that work with his efforts — for which he is perhaps best known — to communicate with dolphins, as well as experiments in the use of psychedelics.
“During a session in an isolation tank, constructed over a pool where dolphins were swimming, I participated in a conversation between the dolphins. It drove me crazy, there was too much information, they communicated so fast,” Lilly wrote of one such experience.
Dolphins figured large in the 19 books Lilly wrote, including “Man and Dolphin” and “The Mind of the Dolphin.”
“It was realizing there is a universe greater than just humans,” his daughter, Cynthia Lilly Cantwell, said of his research.
Lilly’s work inspired two Hollywood movies, “The Day of the Dolphin” and “Altered States.”
Lilly was born Jan. 6, 1915, in Saint Paul, Minn. He earned his bachelor’s degree at the California Institute of Technology and studied medicine at Dartmouth Medical School before earning his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
During World War II, he conducted high-altitude research and later trained as a psychoanalyst.
In the 1950s, he began studying how bottlenose dolphins vocalize, establishing centers in the U.S. Virgin Islands and, later, San Francisco, to study the cetaceans. A decade later, he began experimenting with psychedelics, including LSD and ketamine, often while floating in isolation.
“That first trip was a propulsion into domains and realities that I couldn’t even recount when I came back. But I knew that I had expanded way beyond anything I had ever experienced before, and as I was squeezed back into the human frame, I cried,” he wrote of his first such experience.
Lilly lived in Malibu, Calif., before he retired to Maui, Hawaii, in 1992. He remained an active lecturer, including in Japan.
Lilly is survived by his first wife, Mary Lilly; a brother, David Lilly; two sons, John Jr. and Charles; daughters Cynthia Lilly Cantwell and Pamela Krans; and four adopted adults, Nina Castelluccio, Lisa Lyon Lilly, Barbara Clarke-Lilly and Philip H. Bailey.
Plans for a memorial service in Los Angeles were pending.