Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin, ‘Godfather of Ecstasy,’ dies at 88


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Dr Alexander 'Sasha' Shulgin poses for a photograph at his home laboratory in Lafayette, California, in 2002.
Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, a biochemist and former Dow (DOW) Chemical Co. researcher who introduced psychologists to the drug MDMA and became known as “the godfather of ecstasy,” has died. He was 88.
He died on June 2 at his home in Lafayette, California, according to his wife, Ann Shulgin. The cause was liver cancer.
An advocate of freedom in drug use, Shulgin designed hundreds of psychotropic substances, which he tested on himself and friends, and published books describing the chemicals and their mind-altering effects.
“I have little insight as to how these remarkable compounds do what they do,” Shulgin wrote in a 2005 article in MIT Technology Review. “My hope is that psychedelic compounds may be the tools, or may lead to the discovery of tools, that can throw some light on elusive questions about how the mind works.”
In the mid-1970s, Shulgin began focusing on a compound patented in 1912 by German drugmaker Merck called MDMA, or 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, according to his website. He thought psychologists might use it to treat patients. The drug can lessen a person’s inhibitions, making it easier to be candid during therapy sessions.
A decade later, illegal street versions of the drug -- under the names ecstasy or molly -- became widely available at dance clubs, concerts and colleges.
Euphoria, confusion
Ecstasy pills are usually taken orally or can be crushed and snorted or smoked, producing euphoria and disorientation, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website. Other effects include anxiety and confusion.
MDMA abuse is associated with high blood pressure, and kidney and heart failure. Hospital emergency room admissions by patients under 21 who took the drug more than doubled to about 10,000 in 2011 from 2005, according to SAMHSA.
“He felt he was a scientist and wasn’t responsible for how people used his creations,” his wife said yesterday in a telephone interview.
Asked by the New York Times in 2005 if he recalled the first time he heard that someone died from the drug, Shulgin replied, “It would have struck me as being a sad event. And yet, at the same time, how many people died from aspirin? It’s a small but real percentage.”
Government consultant
Shulgin worked as a consultant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in the 1980s and wrote “Controlled Substances: A Chemical and Legal Guide to the Federal Drug Laws.” The agency permitted him to conduct research on controlled substances in his laboratory, located in his home in Lafayette, about 20 miles (34 kilometers) east of San Francisco.
His relationship with the DEA soured after the 1991 publication of “Pihkal: Chemical Love Story.” The book was co-written with his wife and described by the DEA as a source of recipes for illegal hallucinogens.
DEA agents raided his home lab in 1994 and fined him $25,000 for possessing controlled drugs that he’d failed to report to authorities.
MDMA was one of more than 100 psychoactive compounds Shulgin sythesized or isolated.
‘Important scientists’
“I consider Shulgin and his wife to be two of the most important scientists of the 20th century,” said Timothy Leary, a clinical psychologist who promoted taking psychedelic drugs, according to a 1995 article in the Los Angeles Times.
Alexander Theodore Shulgin was born on June 17, 1925, in Berkeley, California. His father, Theodore Shulgin, was born in Siberia and his mother, Henrietta, was from Illinois. Both were school teachers.
Shulgin attended Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, interrupting his studies in 1943 to serve in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He resumed his undergraduate work at University of California at Berkeley, where he received a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1954, according to his website. He completed post-doctoral work in psychiatry and pharmacology at University of California at San Francisco.
He met the former Laura Ann Gotlieb in 1979 and they married in 1981. The two were introduced to each other by a friend of Shulgin’s who was using MDMA in his practice and spreading the word of its benefits to other psychologists.
Dow fallout
In the 1950s Shulgin worked at Dow as a senior research chemist, where he developed a biodegradable pesticide called Zectran, a profitable product. Following that success, Dow gave him the freedom to pursue his own research. He tested new psychoactive drugs and their effects, publishing his findings in trade journals. He left the company in 1965 after he was asked to stop publicizing his research, according to his website.
Shulgin’s full gray beard and long hair gave him the air of a counterculture character and his view concerning recreational drugs was libertarian. He said that he had taken psychedelics more than 4,000 times, according to a 2005 story in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper.
“All drugs should be made legal,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times story.
He continued his research until 2010, when he was slowed by strokes and began showing signs of dementia.
His first wife, Nina Shulgin, died in 1977, and their son, Theodore Shulgin, died in 2011.

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