The Scientist Who Discovered Ecstasy: Remembering Alexander Shulgin [VIDEO]

The following article first appeared on

What Lenin was to the Russian revolution, Malcolm X to the black power movement, and Spinoza to the Enlightenment, Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin was to psychedelia.

Shulgin died yesterday of liver cancer in the Bay Area, where he lived for his entire 88 years. Shulgin was a lab chemist whose ascension into the Age of Aquarius was much quieter than the likes of Timothy O’Leary, just as his legacy is far more lasting. Today, the tributes to that legacy are accumulating from the top psychedelia sites like Erowid, which has an entire “Shulgin Vault.”

Shulgin started out in the late 1950s with a spectacularly successful stint at Dow Chemical, where he developed the first biodegradable pesticide; the product, Zectran, was a blockbuster, and Dow rewarded Shulgin by bankrolling his ongoing lab work, sometimes assembling a chemical for Dow, sometimes going his own way.

His own way led him into the burgeoning field of psychopharmacology and psychoactive drugs. Ever the empiricist, he had already experimented with mescaline (“I learned there was a great deal inside me,” he recalled) and, after leaving Dow in 1966, he set up his own lab in a small brick structure behind his house outside Berkeley and got down to business.

Shulgin’s reputation as an independent researcher who was not only synthesizing—and testing on himself and fellow San Francisco researchers—new psychoactive drugs but teaching and lecturing about it came to the attention of the Drug Enforcement Agency. It was the late 1960s. The market in psychedelics was exploding. The agency asked him to educate them on the wonders of psychopharmacology,and Shulgin went on the DEA payroll, testifying as an expert witness in criminal cases and writing Controlled Substances: Chemical and Legal Guide to Federal Drug Laws in 1988.

Somewhat miraculously, during a half century of increasing government crackdown on the design, production, sale and use of mind-expanding chemicals, Shulgin retained the DEA license he had been issued in the 1960s to permit him to work with Schedule I drugs. He focused on phenethylamines, a class of hallucinogens including mescaline and MDMA, and on tryptamines, whose lineage includes LSD and psilocin, making hundreds of tweaks on their chemical composition—removing an oxygen atom here, say, or adding one there—and testing the effects by tweaking his brain and those of his colleagues. With scientific rigor, he recorded thousands of these experiments in lab notebooks.

In 1991 Shulgin made the decisive leap from scientist to revolutionary. Having rescued MDMA as from obscurity in the previous decade only to see it mass-produced and then outlawed, he self-published his trove of records. The book, PiHKAL: Phenethylamines I Have Known and Lovedwas not well received by the DEA. The agency responded by raiding Shulgin’s lab in 1994, finally revoking his license. Undaunted, Shulgin published a sequel, TiHKAL: The Continuation, about the tryptamine class of hallucinogens.

Shulgin intended the two books to be exactly what the DEA has called them: “cookbooks on how to make illegal drugs.” He wanted to bequeath to future generations public access to the psychedelic kingdom. The recipe for MDMA—3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine—is now used worldwide to manufacture many millions of illegal, unregulated and potentially dangerous doses of the substance.

Shulgin lived long enough to see the essential premise of his life confirmed. He always held that these chemicals have therapeutic powers and would, in a better world, be developed and tested as medicine to treat mental disorders. Over the past decade, the FDA has gingerly approved tiny research projects of MDMA and LSD for the treatment of PTSD and the acute anxiety of terminally ill patients.

In the following 1996 video, Shulgin explains why he spends his life discovering psychedelic drugs.



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