RIP Alexander Shulgin


I’m fascinated by people who spend their lives doing things that will have a bigger impact than most of us ever will, but who most of us will never hear about. Last week I discovered the work of Aymak Djangaliev, a lone Kazakh scientist who up until the point of his death took it upon himself to save the wild origins of our commercial apples, apples of the genus Malus Sieversii: they are found in a remote region in Kazakhstan’s Tian Shan mountains. He spent his life saving the genetic heritage we seem so intent on destroying through some dominant hegemony. For me, Alexander Shulgin also represented one of these people, a pioneer in neuropharmacology, a maverick outsider who shunned the establishment to create an illustrious body of work over the course of his lifetime.

Like other scientists such as Albert Hoffman who found themselves in the front-line of psychedelic discovery his first findings originated in the commercial labs of a large chemical company. Shulgin’s discoveries were very profitable for Dow Chemicals, this gave him much free-reign in his later work. A resulting relationship that was never going to fully reconciled, his focus on psychedelic substances became increasingly uncomfortable for them. He finally left to set up his own lab at home, in a shed, giving him the freedom he needed to pursue the things that interested him. Living throughout this period in a legal grey area, on the one side he helped the DEA with their drug cases and in-turn the DEA and the government let him continue his research unimpeded.

Contrary to the piss poor reporting in a lot of the media, Shulgin was not creator of MDMA, a substance that was first synthesised by Anton Köllisch in 1914. His interests only came about in the 70’s, but through this interest he found an easier synthesis method and realised its potential to treat patients in a psychiatric setting, ideas that are only now starting to come to fruition: these actions resulted in him gaining the moniker the ‘grandfather of Ecstasy’. This is a name I believe to be too narrow in explaining the things he has accomplished; his two books, PiHKAL and TiHKAL are considered classics in organic chemistry. I have only had the pleasure of reading PiHKAL, it’s an interesting read and it details parts of the life of someone I can only describe as fascinating. The substances within these books were tested on his wife Ann and their friends circumventing the usual approach taken to testing new drugs, he wrote about his experiences, how they made him feel and their scope for future use or the degrees of chemical tinkering he feels may be possible with them. Some of the substances he is responsible for synthesising and testing such as the 2c* family of drugs are far more complex beasts mentally and some will argue spiritually than that of MDMA. As we enter a new age in the creation of designer drugs, things have started to change. Many of the 350 or so new drugs that have found their way into the EU in the last few years are probably based on the research presented in these books.

This was all taken by Shulgin as something that was more about personal exploration. Here was a man who at the end of his life struggled financially and looked for help with his medical bills. A man who at 88 had a good run in life, his age perhaps expelling some of the negative connotations people have about the substances he was making. Shulgin also had problems with the way in which his work had been used, he was quoted as being”very disturbed by the overpowering of curiosity with greed”. He saw what he was doing as more than just producing things to be abused, but as helping people find that other level that they have within themselves: a great interview with him towards the end of his life that sums up his thoughts can be found here. Being an intelligent man whose prowess in chemistry is evident and noted by his peers, he could have probably led a very comfortable life, instead he chose to research and indulge in the things he found most fascinating. Things which to him were important.

What’s more there remains a lot of his work that has not been released to the public, discoveries that may have applications medically and for those who want to further explore the further reaches of their minds and it is this that must be brought together and be available for others to enjoy or benefit from. The work of one rogue who advocated for an end to prohibitive laws and will probably be vindicated posthumously as we further come to comprehend the mind and the senseless backwardness of prohibition.

Alexander Shulgin’s ideas and discoveries, sadly, will probably remain for some time the most important in the field in which it resides.

You can donate to further promote his research: