Support Provided ByLearn More

Scientist Obituary: Psychedelic Chemist

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Alexander Shulgin was a chemist who specialized in creating mind-altering substances – both as a legitimate scientist, and as a rogue chemistry “wizard.”

Shulgin concocted more than 200 chemical compounds capable of rejiggering the functions of the mind, typically testing them out on his wife and a few friends and then publishing the results.

Support Provided ByLearn More
140603-alexander-shulgin-ecstasy-dead

The outcome? His patents include drugs that treat hypertension, reduce nicotine cravings, and address senility.

They also include STP, a hallucinogen favored by San Francisco thrill seekers, and a resynthesis of MDMA, a drug originally meant to reduce anxiety and emotional problems that came to be known as Ecstacy.

Dr. Shulgin’s primary interest was in “the machinery of mental process,” an interest he traced to his military service during World War II. After sustaining a thumb injury, a nurse gave him orange juice to prepare for surgery and Shulgin found undissolved crystals at the bottom of the glass. Assuming they were the remains of a sedative, he fell unconscious. Upon waking, he learned that the crystals were sugar. Shulgin became fascinated in the mechanisms that allowed for his mind to trick him.

He went on to earn a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and to open a lab at his home.

On one hand, Shulgin had a strong relationship with Drug Enforcement Administration officials, and counted several leaders in the organization as close personal friends. He advised drug agents, served as an expert witness in drug trials, and wrote reference works for law enforcement.

On the other hand, the DEA raided his lab in 1993, resulting in a $25,000 fine for experimenting with drugs with no clearly defined medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Read more on Shulgin in his New York Times obituary .