Alexander Shulgin (1925 – to present)

Alexander Shulgin at 85

Dr. Alexander Shulgin began studying organic chemistry at Harvard University in 1943, at the age of 19, but dropped out of school and joined the U.S. Navy, where he eventually became interested in pharmacology. Shugin earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley followed by post-doctoral work in the fields of psychiatry and pharmacology at University of California, San Francisco. After working at Bio-Rad Laboratories as a research director for a brief period, he began work at Dow Chemical Company as a senior research chemist.

Shulgin’s opportunity for further research came with his development of Zectran, the first biodegradable pesticide, a highly profitable product for the Dow Chemical Company. In 1965, Shulgin left Dow to pursue his own interests, and became a private consultant, also frequently teaching classes in the local universities and at the San Francisco General Hospital. Through his friend Bob Sager, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) Western Laboratories, Shulgin formed a relationship with the DEA and began holding pharmacology seminars for the agents, supplying the DEA with samples of various compounds, and occasionally serving as an expert witness in court.

In 1967, Shulgin was introduced to MDMA (ecstasy) by Merrie Kleinman, a graduate student in the medicinal chemistry group he advised at San Francisco State University. MDMA had been synthesized in 1912 by Merck and patented in 1912 as a byproduct of another synthesis. Ecstasy may be a recreational drug these days, but it was initially designed to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Shulgin went on to develop a new synthesis method, and in 1976, introduced the chemical to Leo Zeff, a psychologist from Oakland, California. Zeff used the substance in his practice in small doses as an aid to talk therapy.

After judicious self-experiments, Shulgin enlisted a small group of friends with whom he regularly tested his creations. They developed a systematic way of ranking the effects of the various drugs, known as the Shulgin Rating Scale, with a vocabulary to describe the visual, auditory and physical sensations. He personally tested hundreds of drugs, mainly analogues of various phenethylamines (family containing MDMA and mescaline), and tryptamines (family containing DMT and psilocybin). There are a seemingly infinite number of slight chemical variations, all of which produce variations in effect – some pleasant and some unpleasant, depending on the person, substance and situation.

Since his work on MDMA in the 1970s, Alexander Shulgin discovered and self-tested more than 230 psychoactive compounds, some of which have induced uncontrollable vomiting, paralysis and “the feeling that his bones were melting,” according to a Scientific American report from 2008.


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