R. Gordon Wasson

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Robert Gordon Wasson
Robert Gordon Wasson.jpg
Wasson in 1955
Born September 22, 1898
Great Falls, Montana
Died December 26, 1986(1986-12-26) (aged 88)
Danbury, Connecticut
Residence Danbury, Connecticut
Nationality American
Alma mater Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
London School of Economics
Awards Pulitzer Travelling Scholarship
Scientific career
Fields Ethnomycology

Robert Gordon Wasson (September 22, 1898 – December 23, 1986) was an American author, amateur ethnomycologist, and Vice President for Public Relations at J.P. Morgan & Co. [1][2][3][4] In the course of independent research, Wasson made contributions to the fields of ethnobotany, botany, and anthropology. Several of his books were self-published in illustrated, limited editions that have never been reprinted.

Work: Banking industry[edit]

Wasson began his banking career at Guaranty Trust Company in 1928, and moved to J.P. Morgan & Co. in 1934, where he became a vice president in 1943.[5] Also that year, Wasson published a book[6] on the Hall Carbine Affair, in which he attempted to exonerate John Pierpoint Morgan from guilt with respect to this incident, which had been viewed as an example of wartime profiteering. As early as 1937, Wasson had been attempting to influence historians Allan Nevins and Charles McLean Andrews regarding Morgan's role in the affair, and then he used Nevins' report[7] as a reference for his own book on the topic. Researcher Jan Irvin noted a possible conflict of interest between Wasson's work as a publicist for J.P. Morgan & Co., and his authorship of a book on J.P. Morgan. However, the matter of Morgan's responsibility for the Hall Carbine Incident remains controversial.[8][9]

Work: Ethnomycology[edit]

Wasson's studies in ethnomycology began during his 1927 honeymoon trip to the Catskill Mountains when his bride, Valentina Pavlovna Guercken (1901–1958), a paediatrician, chanced upon some edible wild mushrooms. Fascinated by the marked difference in cultural attitudes towards fungi in Russia compared to the United States, the couple began field research that led to the publication of Mushrooms, Russia and History in 1957. In the course of their investigations they mounted expeditions to Mexico to study the religious use of mushrooms by the native population, and claimed to have been the first Westerners to participate in a Mazatec mushroom ritual. It was the curandera María Sabina who allowed Wasson to participate in the ritual, and who taught him about the uses and effects of the mushroom. Sabina let him take her picture on the condition that he keep it private, but Wasson nonetheless published the photo along with Sabina's name and the name of the community where she lived.[10] Wasson's 1956 expedition was funded[8] by the CIA's MK-Ultra subproject 58, as was revealed by documents[11] obtained by John Marks[12] under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents state that Wasson was an 'unwitting' participant in the project.[11] The funding was provided under the cover name of the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research (credited by Wasson at the end of his subsequent Life piece about the expedition).

In May 1957 they published a Life magazine article titled "Seeking the Magic Mushroom", which brought knowledge of the existence of psychoactive mushrooms to a wide audience for the first time. In his memoir, author Tom Robbins talks about the impact of this article on "turning on" Americans himself included.[13] The article sparked immense interest in the Mazatec ritual practice among beatniks and hippies, an interest that proved disastrous for the Mazatec community and for María Sabina in particular. As the community was besieged by Westerners wanting to experience the mushroom-induced hallucinations, Sabina attracted attention by the Mexican police who thought that she sold drugs to the foreigners. The unwanted attention completely altered the social dynamics of the Mazatec community and threatened to terminate the Mazatec custom. The community blamed Sabina, and she was ostracized in the community and had her house burned down. Sabina later regretted having introduced Wasson to the practice, but Wasson contended that his only intention was to contribute to the sum of human knowledge.[10][14][15]

Together, Wasson and botanist Roger Heim collected and identified various species of family Strophariaceae and genus Psilocybe, while Albert Hofmann,[16] using material grown by Heim from specimens collected by the Wassons, identified the chemical structure of the active compounds, psilocybin and psilocin. Hofmann and Wasson were also among the first Westerners to collect specimens of the Mazatec hallucinogen Salvia divinorum, though these specimens were later deemed not suitable for rigorous scientific study or taxonomic classification.[17] Two species of mushroom, Psilocybe wassonii R.Heim and Psilocybe wassoniorum Guzman & S.H.Pollock, were named in honor of Wasson by Heim and Gastón Guzmán, the latter of whom Wasson met during an expedition to Huautla de Jiménez in 1957.

Wasson's next major contribution was a study of the ancient Vedic intoxicant soma, which he proposed was based on the psychoactive fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushroom. This hypothesis was published in 1967 under the title Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. His attention then turned to the Eleusinian Mysteries, the initiation ceremony of the ancient Greek cult of Demeter and Persephone. In The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (1978), co-authored with Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Ruck, it was proposed that the special potion "kykeon", a pivotal component of the ceremony, contained psychoactive ergoline alkaloids from the fungus Ergot (Claviceps spp.).

His last completed work, The Wondrous Mushroom, was republished by City Lights Publishers in 2014.[18]


Prior to his work on soma, theologians had interpreted the Vedic and Magian practices to have been based on alcoholic beverages that produced inebriation. Wasson was the first researcher to propose that the actual form of Vedic intoxication was entheogenic.

Further reading[edit]

  • Forte, Robert. Entheogens and the Future of Religion. San Francisco: Council on Spiritual Practices, 1997.
  • Furst, Peter T. Flesh of the Gods: The Ritual Use of Hallucinogens. 1972.
  • Riedlinger, Thomas J. The Sacred Mushroom Seeker: Essays for R. Gordon Wasson. Portland: Dioscorides Press, 1990.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon, Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott, and Carl A. P. Ruck. Persephone's Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. The Last Meal of the Buddha. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 102, No. 4. (Oct. – Dec., 1982). p 591-603.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. (Reprint by City Lights, 2012.)
  • Wasson, R. Gordon, et al. The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries. New York: Harcourt, 1978.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. Maria Sabina and Her Mazatec Mushroom Velada. New York: Harcourt, 1976.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. A Review of Carlos Castaneda's "Tales of Power." Economic Botany. vol. 28(3):245–246, 1974.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. A Review of Carlos Castaneda's "Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan." Economic Botany. vol. 27(1):151–152, 1973.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. A Review of Carlos Castaneda's "A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan." Economic Botany. vol. 26(1):98–99. 1972.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. A Review of Carlos Castaneda's "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge." Economic Botany. vol. 23(2):197. 1969.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. 1968.
  • Wasson, Valentina Pavlovna, and R. Gordon Wasson. Mushrooms, Russia and History. 1957.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. Seeking the Magic Mushroom Life magazine, May 13, 1957


  1. ^ "Medicine: Mushroom Madness". Time. 1958-06-16. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  2. ^ http://www.imaginaria.org/wasson/life.htm
  3. ^ "R. Gordon Wasson: Archives". Harvard University Herbaria. Archived from the original on 2009-08-24. Retrieved July 7, 2009. 
  4. ^ Jacobs, Travis Beal (2001). Eisenhower at Columbia. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. p. 99. ISBN 0-7658-0036-5. 
  5. ^ Pfister, D.H. (1988). "R. Gordon Wasson, 1898-1986". Mycologia. 80 (1): 11–13. doi:10.2307/3807487; quoted in Irvin, Jan (2013) Rush, John, ed. R. Gordon Wasson: The Man, the Legend, the Myth. In: Entheogens and the Development of Culture (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books). location 9720 
  6. ^ Wasson, R. Gordon (1943). The Hall Carbine Affair: a study in contemporary folklore. Pandick Press. 
  7. ^ Nevins, Allan (1939). Fremont, Pathmarker of the West. D. Appleton-Century Co., Inc. 
  8. ^ a b Irvin, Jan (2013). Rush, John, ed. R. Gordon Wasson: The Man, the Legend, the Myth. In: Entheogens and the Development of Culture. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books. location 10098-10170. ISBN 978-1-58394-624-4. 
  9. ^ Andrews papers, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library. Box 37, Folder 419; Box 40, Folder 441; Box 42, Folder 460.
  10. ^ a b Estrada, Álvaro, (1976) Vida de María Sabina: la sabia de los hongos (ISBN 968-23-0513-6)
  11. ^ a b CIA. "MKUltra Subproject 58 doc 17457 -- JP Morgan & Co. (see Wasson file)" (PDF). National Security Archive, George Washington University. Retrieved May 6, 2016. 
  12. ^ Marks, John (1979). The Search for the Manchurian Candidate. Times Books. p. 114. ISBN 0-8129-0773-6. 
  13. ^ Robbins, Tom (2014). Tibetan peach pie : a true account of an imaginative life (First edition. ed.). HarperCollins Publishers. pp. 190–191. ISBN 9780062267405. 
  14. ^ Letcher, Andy (2006). Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. England: Faber and Faber Ltd. pp. 97–98. ISBN 0-571-22770-8. 
  15. ^ Rothenberg, Jerome. 2003. "Editor's Preface" in María Sabina: Selections. University of California Press. p. XVI
  16. ^ Hofmann, Albert (1980). LSD—My Problem Child. McGraw-Hill Book Company. ISBN 0-07-029325-2. 
  17. ^ http://www.sagewisdom.org/salviahistory.html
  18. ^ http://www.citylights.com/book/?GCOI=87286100587160&fa=details