"Chemistry is pornography in disguise," Alexander Shulgin once said with a smile. "You just have to know which functional group to look at." Though Shulgin delighted in tweaking his moralist critics—for example, referring to his chemical-structure diagrams as "dirty pictures"—he was no Timothy Leary–style huckster for better living through chemistry. He deserves to be remembered for the full scope of his contributions to pharmacological research, including the creation or synthesis of more than 200 compounds and investigations of numerous others. That many of his creations ended up on the DEA's controlled-substances list, closing off avenues to just the sort of pharmaceutical research that he pioneered, says as much about America's misguided War on Drugs as it does about Shulgin and his works.
Contrary to popular belief, Shulgin didn't invent or discover MDMA (aka "ecstasy"); it was first synthesized by Merck in 1912, and the CIA experimented with it in the '60s as part of the notorious MK Ultra mind-control project. He did, however, discover a way to simplify its synthesis, and after his research suggested that it might be an aid to psychotherapy, he passed some along to a psychologist friend for clinical use. MDMA enjoyed a brief vogue in therapeutic circles in the 1970s before the recreational-drug economy got ahold of it. "The drug should have been called 'empathy' for what it did," Shulgin observed, "but I believe [drug dealers] felt that 'empathy' didn't have the same sensational ring to it."
Shulgin began his professional career at Dow Chemical, where his discovery of the first biodegradable pesticide made his employers enough money that they left him alone to explore his own interests. His early investigations of psychoactive compounds, using himself and his friends as test subjects, were extensively published in research journals of the time, but as his creations began to make their way out of the lab and onto the street, Dow grew warier of his activities. The company finally cut ties with him in 1967, after high doses of a psychedelic amphetamine, commonly known as STP, hit the black market and sent hundreds in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury to emergency rooms. Undaunted, Shulgin continued his lab work as a free agent, consulting extensively with the DEA and other law-enforcement agencies as he explored new compounds and syntheses.
Shulgin's relationship with the DEA changed with the times: in the 1970s, the agency used his book Controlled Substances as its standard reference and gave him a Schedule 1 license to work with otherwise-illegal substances, but in 1994, with the War on Drugs at full boil, his lab was raided and his license revoked; investigators claimed his books PIHKAL ("Pharmaceuticals I Have Known and Loved") and TIHKAL ("Tryptamines I Have ...") functioned as "illegal-drug cookbooks." By then many of the compounds he'd created had been illegalized; MDMA, in particular, had gained popularity as a club drug; and the elderly scientist became an inadvertent grandfather figure for both club kids and libertarians, who appreciated his keep-the-government-out-of-my-consciousness philosophy for different, though overlapping, reasons.
As the titles of his books suggest, Shulgin's relationship with his work was less ambivalent than that of, say, LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann (one of whose later books was titled LSD: My Problem Child), but his advocacy did have limits: he always maintained that the substances he worked with should only be produced and used in controlled circumstances, and he was a fierce critic of the profit motives, lack of quality control, and haphazard usage behaviors that the illegal-drug economy led to. It was a lifelong thorn in his side that the DEA classified MDMA as a Schedule 1 narcotic (no medical application and high potential for abuse), and only now are studies being done to examine its usefulness in treating PTSD and autism. Perhaps, one day, some of his other creations can be reexamined as he examined them, for their potential benefits as well as for their detriments.
Alexander Shulgin died on June 2 after a long struggle with cancer. He was 89. Hulka, who enjoys referring to himself in the third person, gets ten points: five for the hit and five for the solo.