Alexander Shulgin, chemist and renowned psychonaut who acquainted the world with the drug MDMA – or Ecstasy – died Monday evening at his home in Lafayette, Calif. after a battle with liver cancer. Shulgin spent much of his life synthesizing and experimenting with hundreds of psychedelic drugs, which he believed would give people a better understanding of the human mind.
Shulgin’s experiences with psychedelics began early, well before they became sacraments for the counter-culture. When he attended the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1950s, he ingested his first consciousness-altering drug, mescaline. He later became a biochemist for Dow Chemical Co., where he concocted new psychoactive compounds and also developed the world’s first biodegradable pesticide.
While working at Dow in 1965, he came across a compound called MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine), patented by the pharmaceutical company Merck in 1912 and then largely ignored for decades. Shulgin devised a simple method to make the compound and gave the drug to his psychotherapist friend, Leo Zeff, who then distributed it to thousands of other therapists for use in talk therapy sessions. Before long, the drug entered mainstream culture and received its popular name, Ecstasy. Though the Drug Enforcement Administration banned MDMA in 1985, about 8 million people in U.S. had tried it by 2001. Today, it’s the drug of choice in clubs all over the world.
Shulgin spent a good part of his life formulating psychoactive drugs in the lab he built behind his home, substances that he tested out on himself, his wife, and friends. Shulgin estimated that he had tried over 200 psychedelics, many of them his own creations. “I take them myself because I am interested in their activity in the human mind. How would you test that in a rat or mouse?” the chemist told Scientific American in a previous interview.
Shulgin thought that some psychoactive drugs, like MDMA, might also have a therapeutic use. He made contributions to the field of psychopharmacology over his lifetime, but lamented the federal government’s increasingly severe restrictions on psychedelics. He recently told Scientific American, “I was very sad to see MDMA achieve the status of a Schedule 1 drug,” which the government classifies as a drug with no accepted medical use and bans its production and use. “I felt that it would inhibit research into its medical value and that’s the way it’s turned out.”
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