Alexander Shulgin was a biochemist and pharmacologist known as the “godfather of ecstasy.” During his life, he created and tested out hundreds of psychedelic compounds for their use in therapeutic settings. Shulgin’s pioneering legacy has forever shifted how the world views psychedelics and his research remains relevant to scientists today. As psychedelic-assisted therapy continues to gain recognition as a promising approach for treating mental health disorders, Shulgin’s visionary work is helping pave the way for a new era of psychedelic medicine.
Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, born on June 17, 1925, in Berkeley, California, was the child of schoolteachers Theodore Stevens Shulgin and Henrietta D. Shulgin. From a young age, Shulgin was passionate about science and music due to his upbringing in a family that valued education. Shulgin mastered several instruments as a child, such as the piano, violin, and viola. His love for chemistry was sparked by a children’s chemistry set gifted to him by his parents when he was fourteen years old.
By the age of sixteen, Shulgin received a full-ride scholarship to Harvard University to study Organic Chemistry. However, he dropped out shortly to serve in the Navy during World War II. During his service, Shulgin ended up with a thumb infection that required surgery. Before the procedure, he was given a glass of juice, which he believed had a sedative. He fell unconscious shortly after consuming it but later discovered that what he thought was a sedative was actually a placebo. This incident furthered his curiosity about the capacities of the human mind, which inspired his future research.
After his service in the military, Shulgin married his first wife, Nina Gordon, and had his son, Theodore Alexander Shulgin, a year later. He resumed his education at Berkeley and obtained a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1954. Shulgin then went to UC San Francisco to complete his postdoctoral research in psychiatry and pharmacology. Soon, his career took off, and he became a senior research chemist at Dow Chemical. There, he invented the world’s first biodegradable pesticide, Zectran. During this period of time, Shulgin had his first encounter with psychedelic drugs in the late 50s when he tried mescaline out of curiosity. According to Shulgin, “It was a day that will remain blazingly vivid in my memory and one which unquestionably confirmed the entire direction of my life…I learned there was a great deal inside of me.”
After this initial psychedelic experience, Shulgin realized how much power was within the mind and how psychedelics could help bring these mystical experiences to life. Shulgin began making his own variations of the amphetamine molecule found in mescaline and testing these creations on himself and his colleagues to determine their effects. His high-ranking position with Dow Chemical Company allowed Shulgin to do personal research projects, creating new psychedelic compounds that he would post about in popularized scientific journals. Soon, Dow asked Shulgin to remove their association with his publications, leading him to eventually leave the company to pursue his own interests.
Shulgin then studied neurology at UC San Francisco School of Medicine for two years before leaving and beginning his own laboratory on his property in Lafayette, California, known as “the Farm.” In 1977, his first wife passed away from a stroke, but Shulgin persisted in his work as a private consultant and a professor at the San Francisco General Hospital and local universities.
Shulgin met his second wife, Ann, in 1979 and got married two years later. Their small backyard wedding was officiated by a close companion who worked alongside the DEA. Like Shulgin, Ann had a passion for science, which fueled their strong partnership. Their relationship was built upon a foundation of mutual support and shared curiosity about the power of psychedelic medicines. As Shulgin continued pursuing his interest in psychedelic substances, Ann supported and helped him in his studies. The couple discovered several different psychoactive compounds together and experimented with them to know their full effects and proper dosage. As psychonauts, the pair wanted to directly experience the substances to understand how they worked. Whenever Shulgin synthesized a new drug, Ann would try it out herself in small amounts to determine whether or not it had psychedelic properties. Then, Shulgin would have his colleagues try them out at higher dosages.
Shulgin’s ability to formulate new psychedelic medicines and Ann’s experience as a lay therapist allowed the couple to recognize the potential of psychedelic-assisted therapy as a means to treat mental health conditions in patients. Ann would take in patients and give them medicines that her husband created, guiding them through their dark moments and innermost struggles with complete support and without any judgment or shame. Ann and Alexander Shulgin saw how powerful this form of therapy was and advocated for it to be more accepted as a treatment option for those who needed it.
Together, the pair wrote two notable books outlining the psychedelic substances Shulgin created. PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story was the first book that the Shulgin’s published, which stood for “Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved.” The book starts with a partial fiction autobiography of the couple’s experience with psychedelic drugs. It then discusses 179 different psychedelics from the Phenethylamine drug family, along with synthesis instructions, dosage, and a description of their effects. Their second book, TIHKAL: The Continuation, took a similar approach discussing different Tryptamines compounds like psilocybin and DMT.
Beyond PIHKAL and TIHKAL, Shulgin wrote and published several other impactful books about topics like psychedelic compounds, pharmacology, and his personal experiences with psychoactive compounds. During his many interviews and lectures, he also spoke out about the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances and provided valuable information about these compounds to provide further insight and resources for researchers within his field.
Shulgin had a reasonably good relationship with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and held pharmacology seminars for the agents. He provided samples of compounds he synthesized to the DEA and received several awards from the agency after writing a law enforcement reference book titled, Controlled Substances: Chemical & Legal Guide to Federal Drug Laws.
Unfortunately, Shulgin’s connections with the DEA took a turn for the worse in the 1990s. He had been operating under a legal policy that allowed him to create and distribute otherwise illegal drugs. However, two years after the publication of PIHKAL, the DEA took issue with the specific instructions Shulgin provided for synthesizing the various psychedelic compounds in the book. They believed people looking to unlawfully create these drugs could exploit this detailed information. As a result, the DEA reviewed Shulgin’s license, and their lab was raided to find evidence of illegal activity. Though no foul evidence was ever found, the DEA identified minor errors in Shulgin’s record keeping which led to them taking away his license and fining him $25,000 for his violations. Because of this setback, Shulgin could no longer legally continue his research on psychedelic drugs.
Despite this major mishap to his work, Shulgin carried on with his research and concentrated his efforts on compounds that were not considered Schedule I substances. Throughout his lifetime, Shulgin and his wife continued to advocate for psychedelics and their therapeutic potential.
Shulgin tested and synthesized over two hundred psychedelic compounds. One of his most notable breakthroughs was the development of several organic compounds called phenethylamines, which have psychoactive and stimulant effects. One of the most noteworthy compounds Shulgin synthesized while he still had his Schedule I license is 2C-B. This compound has been used both therapeutically and recreationally due to its stimulant effects and empathogenic properties. Though 2C-B does not commonly appear in current therapeutic settings like MDMA, it is a common substitute for the substance and has been popularized in the rave subculture.
Shulgin was introduced to MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) by one of his students at San Francisco State University. Though MDMA was already synthesized in 1912 by a German science and tech company called Merck, it was never thoroughly explored until Shulgin resynthesized it in the mid-70s.
Shulgin would modify and improve many existing compounds to create new variations with different properties and synthesize original ones as well. He would carefully document each of these compounds’ effects and chemical structures. His records have helped modern scientists understand the structure-activity relationships (SAR) of these substances, which is a crucial aspect of medical chemistry, ultimately assisting further research into the therapeutic potential of these compounds.
Shulgin also developed the Shulgin Rating Scale (Quantitative Potency Scale), which he described in detail in PIHKAL. This measurement tool allowed for the quantification of psychedelic experience intensity. Psychedelic users and researchers still use the scale to document the effects of psychoactive drugs and compare different psychedelic experiences.
On June 2, 2014, Shulgin passed away at his home, “the Farm,” after a long battle with liver cancer and several other health conditions. Despite the obstacles he faced toward the end of his career, Shulgin has left an ineffaceable mark on the world of psychedelic pharmacology and therapy. Years after his passing, his work remains incredibly relevant as science and society move towards a more open view of psychedelic drugs for their therapeutic potential. Shulgin’s research has had a lasting impact on the future of psychedelic medicine. As compounds like MDMA are finally being considered breakthrough treatments for mental health conditions like PTSD, Shulgin’s contributions will continue to live on and change the lives of many individuals seeking effective treatment.
“How long will this last, this delicious feeling of being alive, of having penetrated the veil which hides beauty and the wonders of celestial vistas? It doesn’t matter, as there can be nothing but gratitude for even a glimpse of what exists for those who can become open to it.” -Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin.