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RIP Alexander Shulgin, the "Godfather of Ecstasy"

How one chemist laid the foundation for rave culture as we know it.

There would be no rave culture as we know it without Alexander Shulgin. His name appears on the second page of the prologue to Energy Flash, one of dance music's most lauded history books, because he was the first chemist to synthesize MDMA in the 1960s. Shulgin's influence on dance music is fundamental, which is one of the reasons we'd like to pay our respects to him and his family, as the 88-year-old psychedelic pioneer passed away yesterday.


A few days ago, Shulgin's wife and Ann posted a message on Facebook informing the public that her husband's health had taken a turn for the worse, and that it seemed he was reaching the end of his battle with liver cancer. Yesterday afternoon, news broke that Shulgin passed away in his sleep, surrounded by his family and listening to Buddhist meditation music. Erowid, which provides resources for the education and discussion of psychoactive chemicals, sent him off with a Tweet that included a line from the Heart Sutra, the most famous Buddhist scripture.

Sasha #Shulgin died at about 5pm this afternoon. Gate gate para gate parasamgate bodhi svaha! All hail the goer. Our love goes with you.

— Erowid Center (@Erowid)

June 3, 2014

Since the 1950s and 1960s when Shulgin started his career as a chemist at the Dow Chemical Company, he tested and synthesized over 100 different compounds. The most famous was, of course, MDMA, which was first invented by the German company Merck before World War One. Although Shulgin wasn't the first to discover MDMA, he was its most outspoken advocate, especially with regards to its use as a psychotherapeutic medicine that could help patients get through years of mental and emotional damage in a few short hours. He wrote two books about his experiences with psychedelics: PiHKAL, or Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved, and TiHKAL, or Tryptamines I Have Known And Loved. To read his books or his notes from the laboratory, head over to Erowid.


As he explains at the beginning of Dirty Pictures, the documentary filmed about Shulgin's work, he "[didn't] like drugs that inhibit communication." The communal and social effects of MDMA, of course, shaped rave culture as we know it. Not only did the drug encourage ravers to transcend their individual minds and merge into a Dionysian consciousness, it also created a hypersocial, empathetic environment decorated with rich sounds and bright lights, which enhanced the drug's psychedelic properties. "Over the years, rave music has gradually evolved into a self-conscious science of intensifying MDMA's sensations," Reynolds wrote.

Granted, not all of MDMA's effects on rave culture have been positive, and not all ravers or producers have used the drug. Since the drug was banned in 1985, several partygoers have experienced fatal overdoses, and dance culture has experienced periods of dystopian despair that occurred once its constituents started to get strung out on the substance. Shulgin, however, advocated for therapeutic, legalized, and regulated use of the drug, a stance DJ Scuba articulated when the news of his death broke last night.

If every government in the world banned bread and legalised ecstasy things would generally improve

— Scuba (@ScubaOfficial)

June 2, 2014

Even though MDMA isn't used by every constituent of dance music culture, its symptoms and sensations inspired the PLUR ethos and the richly textured, energetic music that makes a raving a magical experience—sober or otherwise.