A madman. A genius. The Father of Psychedelics. Alexander Shulgin has been called a lot of different things. But no matter what he may have been called, the fact of the matter is that no human being in recorded history has produced even close to as many psychedelic drugs as Shulgin.

Shulgin kept a record of the synthesis of each different drug and eventually published his findings in two books: TiHKAL and PiHKAL. While these books may have led to the downfall of his rampant experimentation, their existence ensures that the once closely-guarded chemical secrets of psychedelics will never have to be secret again.

This article will explore Alexander Shulgin and his interesting life so you can understand a bit more about this fascinating individual.

Quick FAQ – Bullet Points About Shulgin

Read this section if you just want a quick primer on Shulgin before going ahead.

What is Alexander Shulgin famous for?

He is most famous for his Magnum opus, TiHKAL and PiHKAL (Tryptamines and Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved) a two-volume collection of chemistry formulas for hundreds of novel psychedelic compounds.

In these books, he details not only how to produce these drugs but also his in-depth experience reports as he used them in a variety of different preparations.

Who is the Father of Psychedelics?

The Father of Psychedelics is quite the endearing title and, depending on who you ask, a number of people fit the bill.

People such as Timothy Leary (accredited with bringing about the psychedelic movement in human consciousness), Albert Hofmann (the first to discover LSD), and Richard Schultes (accredited with creating the science of ethnobotany) have all been called the Father of Psychedelics at various times.

As far as literal definitions go, though, Alexander Shulgin should be considered the literal Father of Psychedelics. He singlehandedly gave birth to many of today’s psychedelic compounds by discovering how to synthesize them and thus would literally be considered their father.

Even though Albert Hofman rightfully deserves credit for first bringing humanity into the world of synthetic psychedelics, Shulgin contributed far more with his collection of hundreds of detailed recipes for producing psychedelics.

Who Was Alexander Shulgin?

This is a hard enough question to ask of anybody, let alone one of the 20th century’s greatest minds. To summarize this individual in a few paragraphs would be a disservice to him and his contributions to humanity.

Add to this the fact that Alexander and his wife, Ann, were both quiet individuals who shied away from public scrutiny. They were not vocal about the work that they were doing and tended to avoid interviews and filming with the exception of the 2009 documentary, Dirty Pictures..

Hamilton Morris, of the eponymous docuseries Hamilton’s Pharmacopoeia that explores the science of numerous mind expanding chemical compounds, referred to Shulgin as not just a mere chemist, but a true alchemist: someone who works not just to create transformations in matter, but to create spiritual transformations within themselves of which their chemical work is just a reflection.

Shulgin certainly fits this description very well. He is responsible for the discovery and synthesis of nearly every psychedelic compound that is available today. But despite (or perhaps partly because of) the intense amount of psychedelic usage, Shulgin remained incredibly articulate, compassionate, generous, intelligent, and engaged well into his old age. He was clearly onto some sort of beneficial, transformative process that allowed him to shed the negativity of the past that so many of us hold on to.

Perhaps he discovered the Elixir of Life, the Fountain of Youth that so many alchemists spent their lives searching for.

Alexander Shulgin was an extraordinary man in every sense of the word. From the way that he spoke, flawlessly producing poetry and prose each time he opened his mouth to speak, to the way that he thought, tying together wild ideas into a clear tapestry of creative endeavors. Even the way that he simply existed in the world was marvelous. One can tell that the planet was better off with Shulgin in it simply by virtue of his perspective and understanding.

Early Life & Interests

One of the man’s earliest encounters that sparked his intrigue into the human mind was an accidental exposure to the placebo effect.

Alexander was undergoing thumb surgery and had been given a drink prior to the procedure. Upon finishing the drink, Alexander was certain that the grainy substance at the bottom of the beverage was an anesthetic. After finishing the drink, believing himself to be sedated, he promptly fell asleep.

He later learned that this substance was only sugar and that he had had his first experience with the placebo effect: a phenomenon that science still struggles to explain in which the human mind can clearly produce changes and effects in the physical body.

As Alexander progressed through school and work, his interests shifted between various topics related to nature and human cognition or consciousness. He studied organic chemistry, pharmacology, botany, and a number of other disciplines that allowed him to explore the many interactions between human consciousness and other components of the natural world.

He served a brief stint in the Navy during the Second World War, then returned to California in the mid-’50s to tackle a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He continued to study psychiatry and pharmacology, achieving a number of postgraduate accreditations in San Francisco.

Initial Employment as a Chemist

In the late 1950s, Shulgin began his work as a chemist. He served a brief period at Bio-Rad Laboratories as a research director before starting his work at Dow Chemical Company. Here, he was employed as a senior research chemist.

It was also around now that he began to have a number of transformative psychedelic experiences that would forever alter the course of his work. His first explorations with mescaline were around now. He was able to apply his fascinating analytical and intuitive thought process to his experiences with these drugs, providing insight that even the most dedicated psychonaut might overlook.

When he was under the influence of psychedelics, one of the most prolific Alexander Shulgin quotes observed that his personal insights “had been brought about by a fraction of a gram of a white solid, but that in no way whatsoever could it be argued that these memories had been contained within the white solid … I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.

As is often the case for most workers in creative endeavors, Alexander’s creative dreams were stifled by the immediate needs of his employment. During his first years at Dow, he performed a number of tasks that he found arbitrary compared to what he wanted to be working on. Nonetheless, he continued to put in a stellar effort.

Even though he wasn’t doing what he truly wanted to be doing, he went the full nine yards. After his invention of the world’s first biodegradable pesticide (I know, right? People actually used non-biodegradable pesticides before Shulgin pulled us out of the dark ages) his employers were so pleased that they gave him significant creative freedom in his work, trusting that he would develop things that would be beneficial for the company.

He used this freedom to develop drugs of all types which he would test on his own or with his wife. He would still finish any tasks that the company set out for him, but it was clear that his heart lay in the discovery and exploration of psychedelic substances.

Shulgin Moves to Pursue His Own Interests

In 1966, Alexander left his post at Dow so that he could follow his own passions. Around this time, he also dedicated a significant amount of his time to the study of neurology. He broadened his understanding of the human mind and its biological counterpart, the brain.

Soon after this, Shulgin began an interesting partnership with the Drug Enforcement Agency of the United States, thanks largely to his friendship with Bob Sager. Sager was, at the time, the head of the Agency’s Western Laboratories.

This initially led to him becoming affiliated with a number of important members of the DEA. He used the opportunity to lecture and educate members of the DEA regarding the pharmacology and safety profile of drugs of all types. As one of the world’s leading experts on drugs, he was often called upon to provide information and analysis when the DEA was stumped.

The culmination of all of this was Shulgin receiving a license that allowed him to work with illegal, Schedule I drugs to study their effects. After receiving this license, Shulgin spent a number of years living out the dream that many psychonauts have had. With full legal impunity, Shulgin was able to produce and experiment with as many drugs as he wanted.

He used these years to meticulously document the effects of hundreds of psychedelic substances with his wife. Around this time, he was also introduced to MDMA by a friend of his. MDMA, which had originally been synthesized in 1912, had not yet received much attention.

Shulgin brought the drug to a psychologist friend of his and advocated for its use in talk therapy. This led to a small but rippling explosion in MDMA-assisted talk therapy. Even though the initial use of MDMA therapy did not go too far, those original sessions paved the way for what we are now seeing today: a resurgence of psychedelic and empathogenic drug-assisted therapies.

During these years, the DEA checked in on Shulgin’s lab several times. Even though the place was a mess, they reported no issues and allowed him to continue his work.

TiHKAL and PiHKAL

Alexander and his wife, Ann, compiled two books during this time. Entitled TiHKAL and PiHKAL, short for Tryptamines and Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved, respectively, these incredibly significant publications are a wealth of chemical information.

Produced from a large collection of notes amassed over the years that Shulgin and his wife had spent documenting their experiments in the laboratory, these books remain quite possibly the most significant works ever produced in the psychedelic world.

They outline in great detail the synthesis and effects of more than 230 different psychedelic chemicals. Each entry contains not only a detailed description of how to perform the chemical synthesis but also a commentary written by Shulgin and Ann describing their experience with the drugs. There is a strong focus on the sexual effects of these psychedelics, and Ann was quoted as saying something along the lines of, “if you can’t make love on a drug, it’s not a drug at all.”

Alexander reported that part of the reason he decided to commit all this information to a book was due to paranoia. He was constantly worried that the DEA would change their mind and revoke their contract, judging his work as illegal. He was, after all, walking a razor-thin line between the legal study of chemical structure-activity relationships and the clandestine synthesis of illegal drugs.

Sadly, most of this paranoia was entirely justified. It’s a good thing that he chose to record this information and make it public because his lab didn’t last forever.

The Hammer of the Law

As anybody who has used psychedelic drugs can attest, what goes up must come down. Alexander enjoyed a significant amount of time riding the wave of legally sanctioned drug synthesis and experimentation. However, shortly after the publication of his two books, the DEA decided that Shulgin’s license was no longer beneficial to their program.

It was Shulgin’s fear that the DEA would raid his lab that led to him writing these books. Ironically, it was these very books that led to the DEA raid. Who knows if they would have let him continue his work quietly if not for the publication of TiHKAL and PiHKAL?

Referring to the publications as “cookbooks for drugs,” and citing cases during which copies of his books were found in clandestine laboratories during drug busts, DEA spokespersons acknowledged that Shulgin was no longer working in the best interests of an agency committed to reducing drug use by enforcing policy.

At least 30 uniformed people showed up at the unannounced raid of his lab, including a fire truck and numerous marked police cars. Shulgin was issued a $25,000 fine due to the presence of some untested drug materials that he had accepted from somebody who was interested in having them tested for safety. The final costs of the fines and legal complications came to roughly $38,000 which Shulgin and his wife had to pay out of their retirement fund.

Fortunately, the married couple was able to reach out to the public and garner donations from fans and friends across the globe who helped them raise at least $25,000 to help cover the legal costs.

Final Years

As they began to age, Alexander’s health began to decline. He spent most of his older years at the farm where he lived in California. He began to suffer significant health issues at the age of 82.

Within a couple of years, Shulgin underwent several major surgeries, recovered from a stroke, and began to show signs of dementia. The increasing care costs led to Ann trying to sell off some of their property.

Shulgin developed liver cancer on April 17, 2014. His wife kept followers updated on his condition through Facebook. Two months later, on June 2, 2014, Shulgin died at home.

Legacy & Final Thoughts

Even after his death, the work that Shulgin did continues to live on. He forever changed the face of the psychedelic world. In fact, it’s harder to find some part of the psychedelic universe that remains untouched by Shulgin’s work than it is to find parts that have been.

Shulgin’s books remain informative and, surprisingly, unbanned. The one documentary that was made about Shulgin and his wife, entitled Dirty Pictures, was released in 2009 and offers the only clue into the personal lives of this amazing psychedelic chemist and his wonderful wife.

And, of course, the actual mind-expanding chemical compounds that he produced continue to change the lives and consciousness of all those who use them today.

While this short Shulgin biography couldn’t hope to capture every aspect of his fascinating life, we hope that you learned a bit about Dr. Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin today.

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