Alexander Shulgin, a chemist best known for introducing the world to MDMA, or ecstasy, died yesterday at the age of 88 after a struggle with liver cancer. He was surrounded by friends and family at his home in California, according to a Facebook post by his wife and longtime research partner, Ann Shulgin.
For his many fans, "Sasha" Shulgin's passing will undoubtedly be a great blow. Throughout his 50-year career, the "Godfather of ecstasy" had a huge impact on our intellectual and cultural understanding of psychedelic substances. He amassed a large cult following through his research with Ann and their two books, PiHKAL and TiHKAL (which stand for Phenethylamines and Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved).
Born in Berkeley in 1925, Shulgin built a successful career as a commercial pharmacologist and chemist at Dow Chemical before quitting in 1965 to pursue his own research. Over the next 49 years, working with Ann out of their home in the Berkeley Hills, he discovered (and tested) over 200 psychedelic compounds.
Of the 200, one left a considerably more lasting impression, and Shulgin will be best remembered as the man who brought MDMA to the masses. Discovered and patented by Merck in 1914, the compound was dismissed as useless and largely forgotten until 1976, when he came across it while poring over industry literature.
As he told The New York Times Magazine in 2005, Shulgin wasn't terribly impressed with MDMA when he first tried it. Calling it his "low-calorie martini," he saw the high as similar to being drunk, except that the user was more alert and conscious. He thought the drug might be helpful for use in psychotherapy. And, for the next few years, MDMA garnered a large following among therapists, who noticed that patients achieved significant psychological breakthroughs in record time while on it. It wasn't until it was embraced by ravers that ecstasy gained the club-drug appeal, and then infamy, it still has to this day.
Of course, Shulgin did way more for his followers than provide a new way to get high; he was an innovator, a brilliant thought-leader in his field who fought hard to legitimize the pursuit of what the Times refers to as "better living through chemistry." To many, he was a hero. For more on Shulgin, his work, and his legacy, head over to his last interview, conducted by VICE in 2010, or the NYT Magazine feature. Both paint a fascinating picture of a man who (for better and, some might say, for worse), transformed the way we interact with drugs.