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Alexander ‘Sasha’ Shulgin

Sasha Shulgin at Home, 2008. Photo by Bruno Torturra

Alexander T. Shulgin, commonly known as ‘Sasha,’ is a biochemist and pharmacologist best known for his synthesis, creation, and personal bioassay of over 500 new psychoactive compounds.

Sasha was born in Berkeley, California on 17 June 1925 and first began his study of organic chemistry at Harvard University. In 1943, at the age of 19, Sasha left Harvard to join the U.S. Navy. After serving in World War II, Sasha returned to Berkeley to earn his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and complete post-doctoral work in the fields of psychiatry and pharmacology at University of California, San Francisco. After a short period working at Bio-Rad Laboratories as a research director, he joined Dow Chemical Company as a senior research chemist.

While working at Dow, Sasha’s interest in psychopharmacology was spurred by a profound experience with mescaline:

“I first explored mescaline in the late ’50s, Three-hundred-fifty to 400 milligrams. I learned there was a great deal inside me.”
— Alexander Shulgin, LA Times, 1995

After developing the first biodegradable pesticide, Zectran, for Dow, resulting in a highly profitable patent, Sasha was given freedom to pursue research of his own design. He began to research new drugs and their activity, and he published his findings in the Journal of Organic Chemistry, Nature magazine, and other contemporary journals.

Alexander Shulgin at Dow ChemicalSasha first tested his new creations on himself. Beginning in 1960, a small group of friends began to join in regular group testing sessions, with meticulously recorded results. The Shulgin Rating Scale was developed to quantify the experiences and effects of the substances. Working primarily with phenethylamines and tryptamines, a body of objective and subjective reports was created for hundreds of psychoactive chemical compounds.

After a rash of bad press about street drug abuse in the 1960′s, Dow became concerned with public reaction to the nature of Sasha’s work, and requested he cease to publish as an employee of the company. Sasha subsequently ended his career with Dow in 1965 to pursue independent research and employment as a consultant. He began teaching classes in local universities and at the San Francisco General Hospital.

Sasha was introduced to MDMA in 1967 by a graduate student at San Francisco State University in a medicinal chemistry group he advised. MDMA had been previously synthesized and patented in 1912 by Merck, but was never fully explored. Sasha went on to develop a new synthesis method, and in 1976, introduced the chemical to Leo Zeff, a psychologist from Oakland, California. Zeff used small doses of the substance in his practice as an aid to talk therapy, and he personally introduced it to hundreds of psychologists across the nation.

Through Leo Zeff, Sasha met Ann, a lay therapist and psychedelic enthusiast who would become his most ardent supporter and eventual partner. They were married in 1981.

Sasha also served as an expert witness and provided pharmacological samples for the DEA, receiving several awards. He authored the definitive manual ‘Controlled Substances: Chemical & Legal Guide to Federal Drug Laws’ in 1988. In order to carry out consulting work with the DEA, Sasha obtained a DEA Schedule I license for an analytical laboratory, allowing him to possess and synthesize scheduled substances.

In 1992, Sasha and Ann published “PiHKAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved): A Chemical Love Story.” The book is presented in two parts: Book One explores the story of a pharmacologist and his wife. Book Two describes a catalog of phenethylamines, with details about reported activity and synthesis.

In 1994, two years after the publication of PiHKAL, the DEA raided the Shulgin lab. The agency requested that Sasha turn over his license for violating the license’s terms, and he was fined $25,000 for possession of analytical samples. In the 15 years preceding the publication of PiHKAL, two announced and scheduled reviews had failed to find any irregularities.

Despite this setback, the Shulgins continued to develop and pioneer new psychoactive substances, carefully working within the boundaries of the law. In 1997 Sasha and Ann published “TiHKAL (Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved): A Continuation,” further detailing both the love story and the chemical research in the area of psychoactive tryptamines. In 2002, Sasha and Wendy Perry authored “The Simple Plant Isoquinolines” to describe plants containing isoquinolines and the names and details of their structures. “The Shulgin Index,” a long-awaited comprehensive catalog of the known psychedelics, was released in March 2011, with the assistance of Tania Manning and Paul F. Daley.

In the last few years, Sasha has seen the effects of aging. On April 8, 2008, at the age of 82, he underwent surgery to replace a defective aortic valve. On November 16, 2010, Sasha suffered a stroke. In December of 2010 he suffered another stroke, followed by skin-grafting surgery to save his left foot from an amputation. Sasha is currently living at home in Northern California and is in the process of recovery with the support of family and friends. He plans to continue his research as health permits.