The Week in Death: Alexander Shulgrin, Who Synthesized the Drug Ecstasy

An American chemist known as the ‘Godfather of Psychedelics,’ Alexander Shulgin originally promoted the drug now known as Ecstasy as an aid to talk therapy.

Alexander Shulgin, June 17, 1925—June 2, 2014 Alexander Shulgin, who has died aged 88, was an American chemist known as the “Godfather of Psychedelics.” In his psychopharmacological studies, Shulgin used himself as a guinea pig to analyze human reactions to more than 200 psychoactive compounds. His experiments most famously introduced the empathogenic drug MDMA into the popular consciousness—under its street name, Ecstasy.

MDMA—known chemically as 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methamphetamine but by Shulgin as a “low-calorie martini”—had originally been created as a blood-clotting agent in 1912. In the mid-‘70s, however, Shulgin synthesised (artificially concocted) the drug and took it himself, noting its beneficial effects on human empathy and compassion. Effectively Shulgin had created a “love drug.”

“I feel absolutely clean inside, and there is nothing but pure euphoria,” wrote Shulgin in his journals. “The cleanliness, clarity, and marvelous feeling of solid inner strength continued through the next day. I am overcome by the profundity of the experience.”

Shulgin and his friend Leo Zeff, a psychologist from California, promoted MDMA across America to hundreds of psychologists and therapists as an aid to talk therapy. One of those therapists who embraced the drug was the lay Jungian psychoanalyst Ann Gotlieb, who met Shulgin in 1979. The pair bonded over their interest in mind-altering substances and married two years later.

Alexander Theodore Shulgin (often known as Sasha) was born on June 17, 1925 in Berkeley, California. Both his parents were schoolteachers in Alameda County. Shulgin studied organic chemistry at Harvard as a scholarship student but dropped out in 1943 to join the U.S. Navy, and while serving during World War II he became interested in psychopharmacology. Prior to having surgery for a thumb infection he was handed a glass of orange juice, and, assuming that the crystals at the bottom of the glass were a sedative, he drank it and fell asleep. After the surgery he discovered that he had simply drunk fruit juice with added sugar and he had been given a placebo. He was, he said, amazed that “a fraction of a gram of sugar had rendered [him] unconscious.”

On leaving the Navy, Shulgin returned to Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He continued with postdoctoral work in psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of California before working in industry, first at Bio-Rad Laboratories and then as a senior research chemist at Dow Chemicals.

At Dow, he first started experimenting with mescaline. In the late ’60s he left the company to spend two years studying neurology at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco. He then built a lab—known as “the Farm”—behind his house and became an independent consultant.

During this period he developed ties with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), giving seminars to agents on pharmacology and providing expert testimony in court. The administration granted him a licence for his analytical experiments, allowing him to synthesise illegal drugs.

Shulgin tested on himself hundreds of psychoactive chemicals, one of which was MDMA—the “emotional and sensual overtones” of which he soon extolled. He had first synthesised the drug in 1965, but took it himself only a decade later after an undergraduate from San Francisco State University described its effects.

The MDMA trials with therapists led Shulgin to Ann Gotlieb, whose father had been New Zealand’s consul to Trieste before World War II. The couple married in their back garden in a ceremony conducted by a DEA officer.

The benefits and dangers of MDMA have long been debated (it was made illegal in Britain in 1977 and in the U.S. in 1985). The debate accelerated as the drug was rebranded, and often dangerously recut, during the ’80s and ’90s to become the colourful little tablets known as Ecstasy, Molly, or simply “E.” For partygoers in raves across New York, London, and Ibiza, the drug was to become a byword for the elevations and crises inherent in clubbing.

Shulgin, however, maintained that the drug could help patients overcome trauma or debilitating guilt. He conceded that there had been “a hint of snake-oil” to its initial promotion, but insisted that it remained “an incredible tool.” He liked to quote a psychiatrist who described MDMA as “penicillin for the soul.”

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Shulgin wrote hundreds of papers on his findings and several books, including the bestseller PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (1991), which he authored with his wife; the acronym stood for Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved. A sequel, TIHKAL (Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved), followed two years later. “It is our opinion that those books are pretty much cookbooks on how to make illegal drugs,” said a spokesman for San Francisco’s division of the DEA. “Agents tell me that in clandestine labs that they have raided, they have found copies.”

Alexander Shulgin is survived by his wife.

Alexander Shulgin, June 17, 1925—June 2, 2014

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