• Bloomberg


Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, a biochemist and former Dow Chemical Co. researcher who introduced psychologists to the drug MDMA and became known as “the godfather of ecstasy,” has died. He was 88.

He died of liver cancer Monday at his home in Lafayette, California, according to his wife, Ann Shulgin. An advocate of freedom in drug use, Shulgin designed hundreds of psychotropic substances, which he tested on himself and friends, and published books describing the chemicals and their mind-altering effects.

“I have little insight as to how these remarkable compounds do what they do,” Shulgin wrote in a 2005 article in MIT Technology Review. “My hope is that psychedelic compounds may be the tools, or may lead to the discovery of tools, that can throw some light on elusive questions about how the mind works.”

In the mid-1970s, Shulgin began focusing on a compound patented in 1912 by German drugmaker Merck called MDMA, or 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, according to his website. He thought psychologists might use it to treat patients. The drug can lessen a person’s inhibitions, making it easier to be candid during therapy sessions.

“I consider Shulgin and his wife to be two of the most important scientists of the 20th century,” said Timothy Leary, a clinical psychologist who promoted taking psychedelic drugs, according to a 1995 article in the Los Angeles Times.

A decade later, illegal street versions of the drug — under the names “ecstasy” or “molly” — became widely available at dance clubs, concerts and colleges. Ecstasy pills are usually taken orally or can be crushed and snorted or smoked, producing euphoria and disorientation, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s website. Other effects include anxiety and confusion.

MDMA abuse is associated with high blood pressure, and kidney and heart failure. Hospital emergency room admissions by patients under 21 who took the drug more than doubled to about 10,000 in 2011 from 2005, according to SAMHSA.

“He felt he was a scientist and wasn’t responsible for how people used his creations,” Shulgin’s wife said Tuesday.

Asked by the New York Times in 2005 if he recalled the first time he heard that someone died from the drug, Shulgin replied: “It would have struck me as being a sad event. And yet, at the same time, how many people died from aspirin? It’s a small but real percentage.”