Who Was Alexander Shulgin, the Late "Godfather of Ecstasy"?

By Gerald Lynch on at

If you've ever been at a club and taken an ecstasy tablet or a line of MDMA, dancing the night away, you may think you have a shady dealer to thank. But the roots of the party drug lie somewhere else completely, with pharmacologist Alexander Shulgin. Considered the "Godfather of Ecstasy", Shulgin passed away this week on June 2nd, aged 88. But his research has left a lasting, and often controversial, mark on youth culture and the recreational drug and clubbing scenes.

Born in Berkeley, California in 1925, Shulgin was the son of two Alameda County public school teachers. A bright student, Shulgin was just 16 when he began studying Organic Chemistry at Harvard University, but dropped out to join the US Navy in 1943. Little did he know what a profound effect this decision would have on him.

During his service, Shulgin required routine surgery, and was given a glass of orange juice. Believing he had just been given a sedative, Shulgin drifted off to a peaceful sleep, only to wake to find the drink had nothing more than a few grams of sugar in it. He had been rendered near-unconscious by a placebo, a discovery that would spark Shulgin to invest his life in psychopharmacology research.

Skip forward to after the Second World War and Shulgin established himself as an up-and-coming pharmacology academic, with biochemistry and psychiatry post-doctoral work under his belt. This secured him a position with the Dow Chemical Company, where he produced products including the biodegradable pesticide Zectran.

But Shulgin's curiosity as to the effects of psychoactive and psychedelic drugs remained. Speaking to the LA Times in 1995, he claimed to have taken as much as 400 milligrams of mescaline in the 1950s.

Leaving the Dow Chemical Company in 1966, Shulgin would then embark on a period of independent research which would later come to define him. Acquiring a Schedule I license from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, Shulgin set up an analytical laboratory that would allow him to test, synthesise and possess any illegal drug. In 1976, Shulgin was given MDMA by a graduate student he tutored at San Francisco State University. MDMA had first been synthesised in 1912 by the Merck pharmaceutical company, and was only intended for use as a means to curb abnormal bleeding. Its entire synthesise by Merck was only a move to block a rival product by a competitor, and had fallen off the radar of many pharmaceutical research teams.

But Shulgin dived head first into its research, synthesising hundreds of variants. He personally tested many of the strains, and, along with a small group of friends, developed what would later be known as the "Shulgin Rating Scale". This would assess the potency and effects of a drug in detail, describing the visual, physical and auditory side-effects that ingesting a drug would have. This period would act as the basis for Shulgin's two best-known works, 1991's PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story and 1997's TiHKAL: The Continuation.

Shulgin's findings and published research works would result in a surge in popularity for MDMA / ecstasy, reaching its height in the UK with the late '80s / early '90s rave scene, as depicted in the movies 24 Hour Party People and Human Traffic. MDMA produces feelings of euphoria, relaxed inhibitions and, sometimes, psychedelic episodes. In the grey Tory Britain before the economic boom of the mid-90s Britpop period, its effects were a communal release for users, inspiring the thumping house and rave music that would lead to "20,000 people standing in a field" for an all-night party, to paraphrase Pulp's Sorted for Es and Whizz.

Of course, MDMA and ecstasy are potentially dangerous drugs. Ecstasy is a Class A drug in the UK, with a potential seven-year jail term for possession and life and an unlimited fine for distributing it. It's been responsible for more than 200 deaths in the UK since 1996, and it can be particularly harmful for epileptics and asthmatics. Studies have also suggested long-term ecstasy use can lead to memory loss and depression.

Anti-ecstasy sentiment in the UK reached its peak in 1995, following the death of schoolgirl Leah Betts, thought to have taken an ecstasy pill from what was a contaminated batch. An inquest later suggested that, while Betts indeed suffered the effects of a dangerously-produced pill, it was actually water intoxication which resulted in the swelling of her brain that killed her. (Ravers at the time were known to fall ill from dehydration due to dancing excessively in hot clubs, and were encouraged to drink plenty of water to counteract this -- Leah Betts appeared to have taken this advice to an extreme, drinking 12 pints in just an hour and a half). Regardless, the tragedy caused a moral panic in the UK -- here was a young girl with a promising life ahead of her, killed seemingly by a single pill. While many have recreationally enjoyed the results of Shulgin's research, there are also many families torn apart by the party drugs his work gave birth to.

It's worth remembering though that Shulgin worked alongside the law -- he was, for a time, employed by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, and in 1988 wrote its reference book on controlled substances. The man was a scientist, not a pusher. However, the publication of PHIKAL was seen as a betrayal by Shulgin's former DEA colleagues. PHIKAL was viewed as an illegal drug-maker's "cookbook" by the authorities, leading to a raid on Shulgin's lab in 1994. Here, it seems, Shulgin's voracious appetite for knowledge about the substances he worked with proved his undoing -- authorities found Shulgin to be in possession of anonymous substances outside the remit of his license terms. His license was revoked, and Shulgin was issued a $25,000 fine. That's the equivalent today of almost $40,000 / £24,000.

2010's Dirty Pictures documentary about Shulgin gives an insightful look at the man late in his life:

Shulgin's later life was beset by health issues. A heart problem lead to surgery to remove an aortic valve in 2008, which was followed by a stroke in 2010. A skin-graft was all that saved him from losing his leg later that year, and the early signs of dementia were beginning to show. April 2014 saw Shulgin diagnosed with liver cancer, the disease whose complications would eventually lead to Shulgin's death.

"Sasha died today [June 2nd], at exactly 5 o'clock in the afternoon," reads a commemorative Facebook post about the pharmacologist. "He was surrounded by family and caretakers and Buddhist meditation music, and his going was graceful, with almost no struggle at all."

For a man whose research provided the chemical fuel for the banging club and rave scenes, it sounds like it was a deservedly-peaceful end.

RIP, Alexander Shulgin, June 17, 1925 – June 2, 2014.

Image Credit: Wikimedia (2)

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