Remembering the Late ‘Godfather of Ecstasy’

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Noted researcher and pharmacologist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, who was known as the “Godfather of Ecstasy,” passed away on Monday, June 2 from liver cancer. He was 88 years old.

His wife and collaborator, Ann, posted a statement via Facebook which said that Shulgin died in their home “surrounded by family and caretakers and Buddhist meditation music, and his going was graceful, with almost no struggle at all.”

Although he invented a hugely profitable pesticide called Zectran while working with the Dow Chemical Company, he was best known in his scientific career for working with psychedelic compounds for more than 40 years. Shulgin created nearly 200 of these compounds throughout his career, which ranged from stimulants and aphrodisiacs to drugs that deaden emotion. The New York Times even referred to him as a “one-man psychopharmacological research sector.”

Shulgin created nearly 200 of these [psychedelic] compounds throughout his career, which ranged from stimulants and aphrodisiacs to drugs that deaden emotion.

But it’s his work with MDMA in 1976 that ultimately led to the creation of Ecstasy and his most lasting legacy. Although he didn’t invent the drug, Shulgin is credited with its popularity and lasting impact on party culture. He originally used it as an aid for talk therapy before introducing it to hundreds of psychologists across the country.

However, Shulgin avoided any legal issues by working with drugs that didn’t exist outside of his lab and essentially hadn’t become illegal yet. He was so confident in these compounds being used safely that he frequently tested them on himself, his wife and their children. A profile in The Guardian noted that “it was not Shulgin’s intention to launch a global drug culture, nor to have that compound consumed with such abandon by millions of people. But it was his connection with this drug that made him a folk hero for the counterculture.”

How Has MDMA Changed?
The MDMA currently found in clubs has changed drastically since Shulgin’s scientific breakthrough, mainly in the long-term effects it can have on users. Studies have shown that Ecstasy can cause lasting damage to serotonin levels in the brain and also affect visual processing abilities. Numerous instances of fatal overdoses have been associated with the drug. But health officials in Canada have noted that pure Ecstasy, the kind introduced by Shulgin, “is safe for consumption and may not have negative long-term health effects.”

Here are some other fun facts related to Shulgin’s life and career:

  • He worked with the Drug Enforcement at one point and even produced a manual on controlled substances in 1988, which won several awards.
  • Shulgin objected to recreational use of MDMA, claiming that if one “[goes] banging about with a psychedelic drug for a Saturday night turn-on, you can get into a really bad place psychologically.”
  • He and his wife wrote a book in 1991 about their drug research titled Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved.
  • Shulgin worked out of his own home lab in Berkeley, CA.

Also Read: A Complete History of Ecstasy

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