“Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change”, said the fictional chemist Walter White on the hit television show Breaking Bad. “Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant, it’s the cycle. It’s solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation”. Walter White’s words paint him as much a latter-day alchemist, ruminating on the mysteries of life and metamorphosis, than as the criminal crystal meth technician that he was.
His words also serve as a succinct description of the questions that drove real-life drug chemist, Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin, who entered the state of physical dissolution at around 5pm on June 2nd, 2014, just a couple of weeks short of his 89th birthday. Shulgin too was fascinated by the study of change – in his case, how the mind and consciousness could be modified so profoundly through interactions with the most nuanced changes to molecules. “I was always interested in how, if you move one carbon atom, for example, on amphetamine, you can change it from being a strong stimulant to a psychedelic,” he once told a reporter. “How is it that the difference of one atom produces such a dramatically different result in the human? The answer is, nobody knows.”
Shulgin though, was no Walter White. His concern was not with power or making money (so much so that wife Ann once quipped that a little money would have been nice), and for the most part his experiments synthesizing new drugs were done on the right side of the law (he held a Schedule 1 license until 1994). It was always that question, about the change in consciousness produced by chemical modifications, that drove him throughout his life. And as such, the test subject for the synthesized psychedelics that he invented was always, primarily, himself (as well as another willing subject, wife Ann). Their seminal books TiHKAL and PiHKAL (‘Tryptamines/Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved’) provide a permanent record of their bio-assay experiments; a typical entry, such as that for the tryptamine DIPT, includes the chemical procedure to synthesize the drug, followed by comments on the qualitative aspects and duration of the experience (18mg: “Wild effects noted in an hour. Remarkable changes in sounds heard”; 250mg: “Shortly after I ingested the substance I heard a spirit say, ‘Once in a lifetime.’ She encouraged me to believe that I would have more life after the experience. But, there was a feeling of foreboding”). Each entry finished with a personal commentary, which might touch on anything from chemistry notes to possible applications of the drug. Not all experiences were interesting or enjoyable though, as one might expect when experimenting with the effects of newly designed chemicals – the Shulgins suffered, on various occasions, nausea, periods of unconsciousness, and terrifying psychological symptoms.
This combination of precise chemistry skills with the drive to self-experimentation and self-exploration evokes the label of ‘alchemist’ all too easily. And Sasha Shulgin’s physical appearance (he stood 6’4, and for much of the latter half of his life wore the white beard and hair of a wizard), as well as that of his laboratory, could easily have lent even more weight to that persona. But it was certainly not one that he cultivated himself…rather than wearing the robes of a magus, Shulgin instead looked more like a Florida retiree in his sandals and cotton button-up shirts.
Sasha was born Alexander Shulgin on June 17th, 1925, the son of Theodore Shulgin, a Russian immigrant, and Henrietta Aten, from Illinois. He was a precocious polymath – he spoke English, French and Russian, mastered violin and piano, and entered Harvard in 1942 on a full scholarship aged just 16. His time there was not a happy one though, largely as a result of the difference in his age and social status to other students. “It was a total, total disaster,” he once recalled. “The people around me were sons and daughters of important people, with money and property, position and stature. I was not, and there was no social blending at all.”
America’s entry into World War II provided Shulgin with the excuse he needed: he dropped out of Harvard and joined the Navy. During his service, in personal time he sat in his bunk and memorized a chemistry textbook, a hobby that turned out to be an advantage when he pursued a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Berkeley after the war. Landing a job at Dow Chemical, he proved his skills quickly. Asked to find chemical applications for the company’s excess inventory, he scribbled a formula on the back of an envelope – as it turns out, he had just created the world’s first biodegradable pesticide, Zectran. The chemical would be one of the reagents which would combine to transform his life – with the profits rolling in from his invention, Dow gave him a lab and the freedom to work on any project he wanted to.
The other reagent was his introduction in 1960 to the psychedelic chemical found in some species of the cacti family: mescaline. “I saw a world that presented itself in several guises,” he later wrote about this first trip. “It had a marvel of color that for me was without precedent… I could see the intimate structure of a bee putting something in its sack on its hind leg to take to its hive, yet I was completely at peace with the bee’s closeness to my face… I had found my learning path.”
Despite initial interest, Dow got cold feet about Shulgin’s pursuit of research into psychedelics, and he left the company in 1966. He continued working on the subject in his home laboratory for the rest of his life though, and over the years has synthesized hundreds of psychoactive molecules, including many that have rised to prominence such as DOM (‘STP’), 2CT7, and 2CB. Ironically, he is most associated with a drug he didn’t actually invent: MDMA, better known as Ecstasy. First synthesized in 1912 by the pharmaceutical company Merck, the drug was later used in tests on animals by the U.S. government to see if it might be an effective chemical warfare agent. After falling into obscurity though, Shulgin resynthesized MDMA after hearing about its effects from a student at San Francisco State University. As a result of his usual self-testing, Shulgin introduced it to a psychoanalyst friend, and as word spread a large number of therapists began using it with patients during counseling sessions. But then, the drug ‘escaped’ into the wild, first appearing in a Texas nightclub before expanding into the dance club drug of choice across the nation, and the world.
Like LSD before it, the underground notoriety of MDMA soon landed it on the list of Schedule I prohibited substances. Shulgin was dismayed – many therapists had told him how impressed they were with MDMA as a psychiatric tool, but now it had been banished from reputable usage. He even disliked the name it now had – he had called it MDMA, and therapists had begun calling it ‘Empathy’ due to the effect it had on patients, but now the street name had taken over. His medicine had become a party drug.
MDMA was not the only drug to slip away from his lab though, and because of this his reputation seems to exist in two parallel realities: as a saint to neo-shamans and psychonauts; a dangerous criminal to those with an anti-drug stance. A story about Ecstasy in Britain’s Daily Mail named Shulgin, under the headline “Has This Man Killed 100 British Teenagers?” As Wired Magazine once said, to anti-drug proponents Shulgin is “a Frankenstein who has loosed frightening pharmacological monsters on the youth of the world”. But nearly all inventions come with inherent dangers when used incorrectly – from cars to ‘safe’ pharmaceuticals – and man would argue that on balance, Shulgin has done more good for people than bad.
And even conspiracy theorists have joined the fray, citing his membership of the elite Bohemian Club, and the strange manner in which he seemed to evade prosecution throughout his life. But those suggestions ignore the fact that three years after the self-publication of PiHKAL, the government raided his house (20 years to the day before his death, on June 2nd 1994), alleging that he had violated the terms of the Schedule I license that he held, resulting in a $25,000 fine and the loss of that license. And as another psychedelic activist Rick Doblin points out, Shulgin had cultivated friendships throughout the years with many people that were or became influential. “He has tripped out with those captains of industry, Doblin said, “so if you want to know why he got raided and not arrested, I think that’s the answer.” And even among those in the DEA, Shulgin’s chemistry prowess has bestowed him a status beyond a mere criminal – after the raid, some have reported that one of the agents pulled out a copy of his book and asked for his signature.
Personally, I see Shulgin not in terms of good or bad, but as what he was – one of those knowledge seekers in the long tradition of alchemy and other secret and (in their times) heretical sciences. A modern Prometheus, birthing new molecules that nature didn’t give to humanity ([“I feel an incredible tingle when I look at a white solid I’ve just synthesized that I know has never existed anywhere in the universe before this moment…and I’ll be the first to know what it does”), Shulgin saw chemistry more as an art form than a science: “It has nothing to do with split atoms and molecules and mathematics and kinetics and all that nonsense. It’s an art form. It’s like writing a piece of music. It is pure imagination.”
But beyond mastering the art and alchemy of molecular manipulation, Shulgin was also one of the great psychonauts – an intrepid explorer and experimentalist of the mind who knocked on as many of the doors of perception that he could during his stay on Earth. His conclusion was that psychedelics open us up to a vast repository of knowledge: “I am completely convinced that there is a wealth of information built into us,” he once wrote, “with miles of intuitive knowledge tucked away in the genetic material of every one of our cells. Something akin to a library containing uncountable reference volumes, but without some means of access, there is no way to even begin to guess at the extent of quality of what is there. The psychedelic drugs allow exploration of this interior world, and insights into its nature”.
But he also lamented the way in which modern laws have slammed those doors shut, and locked and bolted them, making it a crime to access them. “Our generation is the first ever to have made the search for self-awareness a crime”, he noted, “if it is done with the use of plants or chemical compounds as the means of opening the psychic doors”.
As Sasha Shulgin moves beyond growth and decay, into the state of transformation, I can only quote W.B. Yeats as parting words (I hope you’ll forgive the apt, though unintended pun):
I drew aside the curtains and looked out into the darkness, and it seemed to my troubled fancy that all those little points of light filling the sky were the furnaces of innumerable divine alchemists, who labour continually, turning lead into gold, weariness into ecstasy, bodies into souls, the darkness into God.
Our thoughts go out to Ann Shulgin and the rest of the Shulgin family at this time. Please see the 90 minute documentary ‘Dirty Pictures’, embedded below, for a more in-depth look at the life and legacy of Sasha and Ann Shulgin.