Alexander Shulgin, Godfather of Ecstasy, Is Dead

By John Lavitt 06/04/14

The radical drug researcher who synthesized a new form of MDMA and introduced it to psychologists has died at 88.

Alexander Shulgin.jpg
Wiki Commons

The death of Alexander Shulgin at the age of 88 closes the door on the golden age of the party drug ecstasy, when MDMA was believed to be a wonder drug of genius psychopharmacology. According to the BBC, Shulgin died at his Northern California home on June 2 following a battle with liver cancer. He was 88.

His wife, Ann Shulgin, wrote on Facebook that he died "surrounded by family and caretakers and Buddhist meditation music, and his going was graceful, with almost no struggle at all."

Shulgin unwittingly helped transform MDMA from an obscure chemical discovered in 1912 into the rabidly popular party drug known as ecstasy by synthesizing a new form in 1976 and introducing it to psychologists for use in therapy. The drug gained a reputation as a miracle drug that helped patients achieve stunning emotional and psychological breakthroughs, but it also found its way onto the exploding dance club scene and became a staple for recreational use.

The creator of over 200 psychoactive compounds, Shulgin was a giant whose contributions to research into psychedelic compounds and alternative psychopharmacology are beyond words.

As The New York Times wrote in a 2005 profile: "For 40 years, working in plain sight of the law and publishing his results, Shulgin has been a one-man psychopharmacological research sector. (Timothy Leary called him one of the century's most important scientists.) By Shulgin's own count, he has created nearly 200 psychedelic compounds, among them stimulants, depressants, aphrodisiacs, ''empathogens,'' convulsants, drugs that alter hearing, drugs that slow one's sense of time, drugs that speed it up, drugs that trigger violent outbursts, drugs that deaden emotion -- in short, a veritable lexicon of tactile and emotional experience."

Shulgin preferred to test his new experimental drugs on himself, his wife, and their friends. He was never arrested by police or prosecuted by the DEA because the new chemical compounds he invented or worked with were unknown and therefore legal.

Shulgin’s work on what became the drug that fueled the onset of both the rave scene and rave culture earned him the title "Godfather of Ecstasy." In a profile, The Guardian reported 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.”

Although the drug has been blamed for countless overdoses and deaths, Canadian researchers have stated that pure ecstasy — not the contaminated versions sold by street dealers — "is safe for consumption and may not have negative long-term health effects." Whether such a claim is true or not remains scientifically unverified, but there is no question that ecstasy was marketed in the 1980s as a legitimate pharmaceutical for the treatment of a multitude of mental conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

“In the small subculture that truly believes in better living through chemistry, Shulgin's oeuvre has made him an icon and a hero: part pioneer, part holy man, part connoisseur," said The New York Times profile. "As his supporters point out, his work places him in an old, and in many cultures venerable, tradition.”

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.