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Alexander Shulgin, Ecstasy’s ‘Godfather,’ Dead at 88

Alexander Shulgin, ecstasy, dead, godfather, MDMA, psychedelic, molly

Alexander Shulgin, the pioneering scientist best known for introducing the drug known as ecstasy to the wider world in the ’70s and ’80s, has died. He was 88 and had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer after several years suffering from various health problems. His wife, Ann, shared the news on a Facebook page for Shulgin.

Though Shulgin didn’t invent MDMA, the chemical compound in pure ecstasy, the Berkeley, California-based pharmacologist and chemist synthesized it in 1976. He started the love drug’s move toward broader popularity when he introduced to Oakland psychologist Leo Zeff the following year. Zeff championed the drug to other therapists, who cheered its ability to increase a sense of intimacy and diminish anxiety among patients. 

Shulgin was a mainstay in the psychedelic community. A Dow chemist before leaving the company in 1965, he synthesized and self-tested hundreds of psychotropic substances. He’s credited with lending a spirit of scientific empiricism to realm of psychedelic experimentation and wrote five books, including, with Ann, 1991’s popular PiHKAL (short for Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved) and 1997’s TiHKAL (Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved).

You can find out more about Shulgin via Erowid, the nonprofit drug educational organization; The New York Times Magazine profiled him in 2005, and Vice did a fascinating interview with him in 2010.

Ecstasy — more recently known, of course, as molly — spread to dance clubs, and the U.S. government moved to criminalize it in 1985. Check out our feature Rolling in the Deep: Hip-Hop’s Greatest Molly Moments.