The explosion of dance music culture during the late 80s and early 90s conferred fame on some unlikely people, but few were quite as unlikely as Alexander Shulgin, who died on 2 June at his home in California at the age of 88. He was nearly 70 by the time he became known as the Godfather of Ecstasy, a title that made it sound like he had invented MDMA, which he hadn’t: Shulgin had only introduced the drug to west coast psychotherapists in the late 70s.
But, he had created more than 200 psychoactive compounds in his home laboratory, tested them all on himself and his wife and written about them in a 1991 book titled Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved. The combination of the book, his association with ecstasy, and that drug’s burgeoning popularity made him a hugely celebrated figure.
Shulgin always seemed intriguingly anomalous. He was that mainstay of thrillers and horror films: a rogue scientist. His job at chemical company Dow – which had given him a free hand to investigate whatever chemicals he chose after he invented a hugely profitable pesticide called Zectran – came to an end after police discovered vast quantities of a psychedelic that he had created, called DOM, during a raid in New York. It turned out that another less scrupulous chemist had copied it and the drug, which was the product of legitimate Dow research, had become the source of horror stories in the press. One user reportedly disembowelled himself with a Saumrai sword.
Shulgin thought all drugs should be legalised but he seemed about as far removed from the bug-eyed psychedelic proselyte of popular myth as it was possible to get. His writing was measured, calm and witty. He did not court the attention of the rave generation and, unlike the mid-90s’ other psychedelic guru – Terrence McKenna – never found it necessary to make records with the Shamen. If anything, he seemed faintly exasperated by the way MDMA was being used. “Go banging about with a psychedelic drug for a Saturday night turn-on, and you can get into a really bad place, psychologically,” he had warned in Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved. Later he was to lament that MDMA had been “sidetracked into the Yahoo generation”.
Outside of the psychonauts who cluster around websites such as Erowid, none of the drugs Shulgin invented became as famous as the one he didn’t. In the late 90s, there was talk that a compound called 2CB was “the new ecstasy” but it never attained the ubiquity of E. Nevertheless, Shulgin’s legend was assured. When Vice magazine dispatched a writer to interview him at home in 2010, the writer was so awestruck that he described himself boggling at the Shulgin septic tank, “which undoubtedly contains the world’s most diverse collection of psychedelic urinary and fecal metabolites”. It’s perhaps worth noting that said writer claimed he had tried an awful lot of Shulgin’s compounds over the years.