Alexander 'Sasha' Shulgin was an artist on a molecular level. His biggest gift to the world? The popularization of 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, the chemical compound you might know as MDMA or Ecstasy. He died on Monday, June 2th 2014.
His own laboratory
This year it was 50 years ago that Alexander Shulgin traded his comfortable job as senior research chemist at DOW Chemicals for, what we see as, his artistic work. In his own laboratory he focused on chemical connections with psychoactive properties. Sasha: "To me, having your own lab is a very extreme pleasure.”
Sasha was curious about the workings of the human brain and the interplay with outside compounds. That curiosity rose from its slumber at the end of the 1950s. Experiments with mescaline opened his eyes. With some understatement: “I learned there was a great deal inside me.”
Animal test subject
Hundreds of new chemical connections were created by his hands. Among them, 2C-B, 2C-I and 2C-T-7. He tested all of them himself, together with a group of good friends, because: "There are real problems involved in testing a rat for empathy or changes in self-image."
Sasha didn’t do his lab work like a Heisenberg, aiming for a quick fortune. He also never aimed to provide the ideal drug for raves. What interested him most were the possibilities for self-reflection and therapeutic usage. “I don’t like drugs that get too sparkly. I don’t like drugs that inhibit communication.”
Together with his wife he wrote two classic books: PiHKAL (Phenethylamines I have known and loved) and TiHKAL (Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved: The Continuation). In the language of both books you recognize the versatility of Sasha. The chemist: “A suspension of 9.5 g LAH in 750 ml well stirred and hydrous Et20 was held at reflux under an inert atmosphere.” And the psychonaut: “I saw the clouds toward the west. THE CLOUDS!!!”
His work lead to the rediscovery of MDMA in 1976, the chemical compound that gave the nineties colour and made Sasha an influencer of culture. That famous little chemical is no creation of himself. It was already synthesized in 1912. Its effects weren’t known back then and the formula was only found on some old notes.
Godfather of Ecstasy
Sasha was the man who – after hearing some rumours – synthesized MDMA and scientifically researched and described the psychoactive properties. His name and network made sure the news spread fast. Sasha and his wife were enthusiastic advocates for the use of MDMA in psychotherapy, in the treatment of PTSD for example.
Rest in Peace
A few days ago, Ann Shulgin wrote: “Sasha died today, at exactly 5 o’clock in the afternoon. He was surrounded by family and caretakers and Buddhist meditation music and his going was graceful, with almost no struggle at all.”
We believe that Alexander Shulgin has made the world a better place. Financially, he hardly had any advantage of his labour of love. You can imagine that his relationship with those in power was tense at best. If you want to give back to him and his widow, donations are welcome.
The documentary Dirty Pictures (2010) is about Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin and his life's work, and can be found on YouTube.