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Alexander Shulgin

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This article is about the scientist. For the musician, see Alexander Shulgin (musician).
Alexander Shulgin
Shulgin sasha 2011 hanna jon.jpg
Alexander and Ann Shulgin at book signing in Oakland, CA in December 2011
Born Alexander Theodore Shulgin
(1925-06-17)June 17, 1925
Berkeley, California, USA
Died June 2, 2014(2014-06-02) (aged 88)
Lafayette, California
Citizenship United States
Fields Chemistry, psychology, philosophy, biology
Alma mater
Known for
Notable awards
DEA Awards (numerous)
Spouses Nina Shulgin (deceased)
Ann Shulgin
Children Theodore (Ted) A. Shulgin (died of cancer May 15, 2011)[1]

Alexander Theodore Shulgin (June 17, 1925 – June 2, 2014) — known informally as Sasha Shulgin — was an American medicinal chemist, biochemist, pharmacologist, psychopharmacologist, and author. Shulgin is credited with introducing MDMA (ecstasy) to psychologists in the late 1970s for psychopharmaceutical use. He discovered, synthesized, and personally bioassayed over 230 psychoactive compounds, and evaluated them for their psychedelic and/or entactogenic potential.

In 1991 and 1997, he and his wife Ann Shulgin authored the books PIHKAL and TIHKAL (standing for Phenethylamines and Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved), which extensively described their work and personal experiences with these two classes of psychoactive drugs. Shulgin performed seminal work into the descriptive synthesis of many of these compounds. Some of Shulgin's noteworthy discoveries include compounds of the 2C* family (such as 2C-B) and compounds of the DOx family (such as DOM).

Due in part to Shulgin's extensive work in the field of psychedelic research and the rational drug design of psychedelic drugs, he has since been dubbed the "godfather of psychedelics".[2]

Life and career[edit]

Shulgin was born in Berkeley, California[3] to Theodore Stevens Shulgin (1893–1978)[4] and Henrietta D. (Aten) Shulgin (1894–1960).[5][6] His father was born in Russia, while his mother was born in Illinois. Both Theodore and Henrietta were public school teachers in Alameda County.[7]

Shulgin began studying organic chemistry as a Harvard University scholarship student at the age of 16. In 1943, he dropped out of school to join the U.S. Navy, where he would eventually become interested in psychopharmacology.

While in the Navy, Shulgin was given a glass of orange juice by a military nurse prior to surgery for a thumb infection. Shulgin drank the juice assuming that it contained a narcotic, then fell asleep rapidly. Upon waking, however, he learned that no psychoactive drug had been present in the juice. The experience made him aware of the influence of placebos over the human mind.[8]

After serving in the Navy (a veteran of World War II), he returned to Berkeley, California, and in 1954 earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. Through the late 1950s, Shulgin completed post-doctoral work in the fields of psychiatry and pharmacology at University of California, San Francisco. After working at Bio-Rad Laboratories as a research director for a brief period, he began work at Dow Chemical Company as a senior research chemist.[8]

It was at this time that he had a series of psychedelic experiences that helped to shape his further goals and research, the first of which was brought on by mescaline.[9] "I first explored mescaline in the late '50s.... Three-hundred-fifty to 400 milligrams. I learned there was a great deal inside me."[9]

Shulgin later reported personal revelations that "had been brought about by a fraction of a gram of a white solid, but that in no way whatsoever could it be argued that these memories had been contained within the white solid ... I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability."[8]

Zectran-containing pesticide manufactured by Dow; photo taken at the Farm on July 26, 2009.

Shulgin's professional activities continued to lean in the direction of psychopharmacology, furthered by his personal experiences with psychedelics. But during this period he was unable to do much independent research. His opportunity for further research came following his development of Zectran, the first biodegradable pesticide, a highly profitable product. In his book PIHKAL, Shulgin limits his pesticide days at Dow Chemical to one sentence in 978 pages. However, Dow Chemical Company, in return for Zectran's valuable patent, gave Shulgin great freedom. During this time, he created and patented drugs when Dow asked, and published findings on other drugs in journals such as Nature and the Journal of Organic Chemistry. Eventually, Dow Chemical requested that he no longer use their name on his publications.[8]

In late 1966, Shulgin left Dow in order to pursue his own interests. He first spent two years studying neurology at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, leaving to work on a consulting project. He set up a home-based lab on his property, known as "the Farm", and became a private consultant. He also taught classes in the local universities and at the San Francisco General Hospital. Through his friend Bob Sager, head of the U.S. DEA's Western Laboratories, Shulgin formed a relationship with the DEA and began holding pharmacology seminars for the agents, supplying the DEA with samples of various compounds, and occasionally serving as an expert witness in court. In 1988, he authored a then-definitive law enforcement reference book[10] on controlled substances, and received several awards from the DEA.[8]

Independent research[edit]

In order to work with scheduled psychoactive chemicals, Shulgin obtained a DEA Schedule I license for an analytical laboratory, which allowed him to synthesize and possess any otherwise illicit drug. Shulgin set up a chemical synthesis laboratory in a small building behind his house, which gave him a great deal of career autonomy. Shulgin used this freedom to synthesize and test the effects of potentially psychoactive drugs.

In 1976, Shulgin was introduced to MDMA by a student in the medicinal chemistry group he advised at San Francisco State University.[11] MDMA had been synthesized in 1912 by Merck and patented in 1912 as an intermediate of another synthesis in order to block competitors, but was never explored in its own right. Shulgin went on to develop a new synthesis method, and in 1976, introduced the chemical to Leo Zeff, a psychologist from Oakland, California. Zeff used the substance in his practice in small doses as an aid to talk therapy. Zeff introduced the substance to hundreds of psychologists and lay therapists around the nation, including Ann Shulgin, whom Alexander Shulgin met in 1979, and married in 1981.[8]

Sasha at the Farm, 2009

After judicious self-experiments, Shulgin enlisted a small group of friends with whom he regularly tested his creations, starting in 1960. They developed a systematic way of ranking the effects of the various drugs, known as the Shulgin Rating Scale, with a vocabulary to describe the visual, auditory and physical sensations. He personally tested hundreds of drugs, mainly analogues of various phenethylamines (family containing MDMA, mescaline, and the 2C* family), and tryptamines (family containing DMT, psilocin, and LSD). There are a seemingly infinite number of slight chemical variations, which can produce variations in effect — some pleasant and some unpleasant, depending on the person, substance, and situation — all of which are meticulously recorded in Shulgin's lab notebooks. Shulgin published many of these objective and subjective reports in his books and papers.[8]

In 1994, two years after the publication of PIHKAL, the DEA raided his lab. The agency requested that Shulgin turn over his license for violating the license's terms, and he was fined $25,000 for possession of anonymous samples sent to him for quality testing. In the 15 years preceding the publication of PIHKAL, two announced and scheduled reviews failed to find any irregularities.[12] Richard Meyer, spokesman for DEA's San Francisco Field Division, has stated that, "It is our opinion that those books are pretty much cookbooks on how to make illegal drugs. Agents tell me that in clandestine labs that they have raided, they have found copies of those books."[8]

Prior to his 2010 health issues, Shulgin had been working on a series of N-allylated tryptamines including 5-MeO-DALT and 5-MeO-MALT.[13]

Declining health and death[edit]

Shulgin spent most of his later life at the Farm in Lafayette, California. On April 8, 2008, at the age of 82, he underwent surgery to replace a defective aortic valve.[14] On November 16, 2010, he suffered a stroke, from which he largely recovered.[15] Also at the close of 2010, a skin-grafting surgery saved his left foot from being amputated. Around this time, Shulgin began showing early signs of dementia, mostly severe loss of short-term memory. With progression of the dementia since 2010, his wife Ann Shulgin had been trying to sell part of their property to raise more money to cover care costs.

On April 17, 2014, Ann Shulgin reported on Facebook that her husband had developed liver cancer, and in a May 31 update on Facebook she said that, although appearing frail, he seemed to be experiencing his last moments in peace and without pain.[16] On June 2, 2014, Shulgin died at home in bed surrounded by family, at the age of 88.[17]


Shulgin was a member of Mensa International and frequently attended Mensa events in California.[18]




  1. ^ Shulgin, Ann. "CaringBridge Journal Entry for May 24, 2011 5:04pm". CaringBridge. Retrieved 5 April 2014. 
  2. ^ "DIRTY PICTURES" – Alexander Shulgin documentary movie trailer, SXSW 2010 on YouTube
  3. ^ California Birth Index, 1905–1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2005. Original data: State of California. California Birth Index, 1905–1995. Sacramento, CA, USA: State of California Department of Health Services, Center for Health Statistics.
  4. ^ California Death Index, 1940–1997 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2000. Original data: State of California. California Death Index, 1940–1997. Sacramento, CA, USA: State of California Department of Health Services, Center for Health Statistics.
  5. ^ California Death Index, 1940–1997 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2000. Original data: State of California. California Death Index, 1940–1997. Sacramento, CA, USA: State of California Department of Health Services, Center for Health Statistics.
  6. ^ Lawrence, Alberta Chamberlain (1952). Authors Biographical Monthly Service. Golden Syndicate Publishing Company. 
  7. ^ 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2002. Year: 1930; Census Place: Berkeley, Alameda, California; Roll 111; Page: 1B; Enumeration District: 320; File: 1029.0.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Bennett, Drake (2005-01-30). "Dr. Ecstasy". New York Times Magazine (New York Times). Archived from the original on 14 July 2006. Retrieved 2006-07-08. 
  9. ^ a b Romero, Dennis (1995-09-05). "Sasha Shulgin, Psychedelic Chemist". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2006-07-08. 
  10. ^ Shulgin, Alexander (1988). Controlled Substances: Chemical & Legal Guide to Federal Drug Laws. Ronin Publishing. ISBN 0-914171-50-X. 
  11. ^ Brown, Ethan (September 2002). "Professor X". Wired. Retrieved 4 January 2015. 
  12. ^ "DEA Raid of Shulgin's Laboratory". Erowid. 2004-01-08. Retrieved 2006-07-08. 
  13. ^ Morris, Hamilton and Smith, Ash (May 2, 2010). "Vice Magazine – The Last Interview With Alexander Shulgin". 
  14. ^ Brown, David Jay (June 19, 2008). "MAPS News: June 2008 – First legal dose of LSD administered!". MAPS News. 
  15. ^ "Sasha Shulgin". Psychedelic Research. November 18, 2010. 
  16. ^ Pescovitz, David (2014-06-01). "Psychedelic hero Alexander Shulgin nearing death / Boing Boing". Retrieved 2015-11-17. 
  17. ^ Calamur, Krishnadev (2014-06-03). "Alexander Shulgin, The 'Godfather Of Ecstasy,' Dies At 88 : The Two-Way". NPR. Retrieved 2015-11-17. 
  18. ^ with Shulgin, Ann (1991). PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story. Berkeley: Transform Press. ISBN 0-9630096-0-5. 
  19. ^ Shulgin, Alexander T.; Sargent, Thornton; Naranjo, Claudio (1966). "Role of 3,4-Dimethoxyphenethylamine in Schizophrenia". Nature 212 (5070): 1606. doi:10.1038/2121606a0. PMID 21105535. 

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