You are probably familiar with UC Berkeley’s celebrity professors, such as Robert Reich, but does the name Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin ring a bell?
Surprise! The man who is indirectly responsible for millions of clairvoyant self-revelations — or, at the very least, your “good” time at Beyond Wonderland — is an 88-year-old UC Berkeley graduate. Why should ravers everywhere dedicate an Instagram or two to this biochemist at their next EDM festival? Shulgin is the grandfather of MDMA, aka “Molly” or “Mandy” — the psychedelic drug commonly associated with raves, fuzzy boots, rainbow tutus and candy bracelets.
After receiving his doctorate in biochemistry from Cal, Shulgin spent several years studying the chemical effects of mescaline on the body. Working with the cactus-derived drug caused Shulgin to grow curious — so curious that under the supervision of some of his colleagues, he took his first trip in 1960. It would be one of nearly 10,000 psychedelic journeys the biochemist estimates to have taken in his lifetime.
For the next 40 years, Shulgin would devote his genius to synthesizing a pharmacopoeia of psychedelic compounds, working in his Walter White-esque backyard lab and discovering around 200 unique substances.
In fact the first, and sometimes only person, to test his creations was the chemist himself. He kept meticulous records, some of which he referenced in “PiKHAL,” his self-published book (which stands for “Phenethylamines I have Known and Loved”). The Drug Enforcement Administration condemned Shulgin’s book as a dangerous guide to Schedule I drugs, but that didn’t stop it from selling more than 41,000 copies (wildly successful for a self-published title).
The academic accolades and lucrative MDMA market that could emerge from his work was never the driving forces behind all of Shulgin’s groundbreaking experiments. For all the millions of Molly pills sold around the word, he has not seen one dime. His driving force is curiosity. For Shulgin, the discovery of a new drug is analogous to completing a piece of music, or a new painting. For him, it is a form of artistic expression that alone transcends medicine, money, and Nobel Prizes altogether.
Contact Liz Zarka at [email protected]
A previous version of this article may have implied that Alexander Shulgin was the first person to discover MDMA. In fact, Shulgin’s research is credited as being responsible for the popular version of the drug.