When chemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin died Monday night at the age of 88, his legacy was quickly summed up in three words: “Godfather of Ecstasy.” It’s the easiest characterization of the chemist because his '70s-era synthesis of the Ecstasy (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA) is the most well known of his work.
The “Godfather of Ecstasy” moniker has stuck so firmly to Shulgin because in the decades since his MDMA synthesis, the drug has vastly grown in importance. It’s no stretch to argue that without Shulgin’s synthesis of MDMA there would be no “summer of love” in England in 1988, no rave culture in the United States during the 1990s and certainly no staggering-in-size, billion dollar EDM (Electronic Dance Music) industry today.
But Shulgin was no MDMA mastermind. In fact, he wasn’t even the first to synthesize the drug. This distinction belongs to the pharmaceutical giant Merck, which used it as a chemical intermediary in 1912. Nor did he pioneer the use of MDMA as a psychoactive substance. That occurred in 1953, when the U.S. military tested it on animals as a possible chemical warfare agent.
Instead, at the suggestion of an acquaintance, Shulgin synthesized MDMA — on Sept. 12, 1976, to be exact — and reflected on both its creation and its effects in his journal. And while the chemist’s journaling about MDMA was indeed ecstatic — “I have lived all my life to get here, and I feel I have come home” — it was not, to paraphrase "Generation Ecstasy" author Simon Reynolds, “E-vangelism” for the drug or, for that matter, any of the dozens of psychoactive compounds Shulgin himself created.
After leaving a job with Dow Chemical in 1965, where he invented the first biodegradable insecticide, Shulgin and his wife, Ann (who survives him), decamped to a sprawling ranch in Lafayette, California, where he synthesized drugs in his home laboratory, tested them on themselves and a test group usually consisting of 12 people, and then wrote, mostly dispassionately and clinically, about the creation of hundreds of such drugs and the minute-by-minute experiences of taking them.
The Shulgins’ writings were published as books including 1991’s “PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story” (short for "Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved"), its 1997 sequel “TIHKAL: The Continuation” (about tryptamines) and 2002’s “The Simple Plant Isoquinolines.” As these titles suggest, the Shulgins took an extremely cerebral approach to psychoactives that one would assume would alienate laypeople — synthesize drugs, test them on yourself and others, report on the experience. But, to the chagrin of law enforcement, they inspired like-minded psychoactive drug devotees and later chemists across the globe known as “psychonauts.”
In 1993, PIKHAL’s popularity led to a DEA raid on Shulgin’s home lab, which resulted in the loss of his DEA Schedule I research license. More recently, the Shulgin method has become the template of psychonaut websites, such as erowid.org, where user “experiences” (“I think that everyone needs hugs, and they all concur”) share space with scientific information such as a compound’s chemical formula (C11H13NO3, methylone).
And like Shulgin before them, the psychonauts experiment with compounds only to have them sold by drug business profiteers and then banned by the DEA. (MDMA was declared a Schedule I substance in the mid-1980s after it was popularized in heady nightclub scenes such as Dallas’ Starck Club; the MDMA-like substance Methylone was given Schedule I status on April 12, 2013, following its popularity on overseas websites that sold it by the gram with the promise that it was “legal powder.”)
So it’s not Ecstasy but Shulgin’s science-driven use of psychedelics as a means to mine psychic territory that he’ll ultimately be remembered for.
“The best words I can use,” he once said, referring to psychoactive drugs, “are research tools.” Shulgin would have wanted to be remembered that way — as he was always uncomfortable with how wildly popular MDMA had become.
"I don't think it's being used the way it should,” Shulgin said. (During the 1970s and early 1980s, however, both he and his wife were strong advocates of the use of MDMA in therapeutic settings and MDMA has since proven to be a potent tool in the treatment of PTSD.)
As psychonauts and drug-policy makers debate Shulgin’s great legacy, there too should be a recognition of his wife and co-author’s extraordinary role in the forging of their unique scientific method. It was Ann who was such a fierce advocate for the experience of taking psychoactive compounds to take equal billing with highly technical synthesis instructions for psychoactive drugs in “PIHKAL” and “TIHKAL.”
This duality was often on vivid display in their home life. Ann once chided him, “Speak for yourself!” after he’d described psychedelics as research tools. "I like to turn on and observe the universe,” she unabashedly proclaimed.
In the end, both Sasha and Ann will likely have their way: there’s little doubt that the hundreds of Shulgin psychedelic compounds — or tools, as he preferred — will inspire reflection about the universe among scientists and psychonauts for generations to come.