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Alexander Shulgin (1925–2014)

  • By Hamilton Morris
  • Issue 5
  • Shelf Life

When I first entered Alexander Shulgin’s library, in Lafayette, California, I began photographing the books as quickly and thoroughly as I could, starting at the tops of the shelves and moving down, then across, shelf by shelf, to ensure that I had documented everything. In a house filled with people who have lived their lives under the shadow of government surveillance, I didn’t want to look as if I were engaged in some sort of clandestine activity—especially when I was simply embarrassed by how fanatically obsessed I was with Shulgin and his prolific contributions to medicinal chemistry and psychopharmacology. I wanted to document the titles in toto so I could find them in libraries or buy them.

Many of the other great psychedelic luminaries have also been book collectors: Terence McKenna said he had amassed over one thousand books by the end of his sophomore year in college, and his psychedelic library grew to be one of the greatest on earth before it was consumed in a tragic fire kindled by a neighboring Quiznos. Jonathan Ott was said to have the second greatest psychedelic library, but it too was burned, not by the dark machinations of a submarine-sandwich franchise but by jealous rivals. The greatest standing psychedelic library is the Fitz Hugh Ludlow memorial library in Geneva, but it is rumored to have been maintained by government agents planted to spy on those who sought out the literature. It is such fear of erasure, censorship, and surveillance that motivates the collection and hoarding of psychedelic books. Marginalized groups are tasked with writing their own histories and being the keepers of their own records. It was this same fear, motivated in part by the 1947 mass burning of Wilhelm Reich’s books by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, that motivated Shulgin to publish his magnum opus, PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (co-authored with his wife, Ann).

The library and the chemical stockroom on Shulgin’s property, storing ideas and precursors respectively, both served as a sort of ore from which his creations were smelted, and both were idiosyncratic in their own way. His chemicals are not of the sort one would encounter in a modern laboratory: a porcelain jug of mercury, a highly precarious container of picric acid that has begun to crystallize out of its protective water paste, hundreds of samples packed into Cargille vials sealed with crumbling corks. But the books are even stranger. There is a vibrant copy of the Psychedelic Guide to the Preparation of the Eucharist, Michael Valentine Smith’s Psychedelic Chemistry, the complete works of Thomas Szasz, Aldous Huxley, and Hobart Huson—a prolific Texas-based MDMA chemist who formerly wrote under the pseudonym Strike. A beautiful softcover edition of The Complete Book of Ecstasy by U.P. Yourspigs. A shelf dedicated to his cactological pursuits, including a fine copy of Britton and Rose’s The Cactaceae. Two editions of a bizarre and little-known clandestine chemistry potboiler titled The Alchemist, which prominently features a thinly fictionalized Alexander Shulgin as an idiosyncratic chemist who creates a hallucinogenic sex drug called “Rainbow Vision.” Thantanos to Eros; Prostitution and Drugs; Hippies, Drugs and Promiscuity… Borges’ Ficciones. Missing were certain touchstones in his scientific career: Paul Karrer’s Organic Chemistry, with which Shulgin taught himself the art of organic synthesis while serving in the Navy during WWII, a book notable for its breadth and impenetrability relative to contemporary organic chemistry textbooks, as well as its emphasis on the synthesis of natural products, including the psychedelics mescaline, harmine, and the LSD precursor lysergic acid. At the base of a copy of William Braden’s The Private Sea: LSD and the Search for God sits Shulgin’s Harvard Alumni Association pin, next to a pin depicting the molecular structure of LSD.

On that day in 2010, Alexander Shulgin was sitting outside under a parasol in his front yard surrounded by admirers, looking very happy, and talking discursively about the unexplored potential in 5-ethoxylated tryptamines and asymmetrical N-allyl-tryptamines such as MAlT, EAlT, PAlT, and iPAlT. I believe he was also drinking a red wine that was named after him. I thanked him for allowing me to look through his books and told him I had some trouble purifying a novel cyclopropanated tryptamine, that its behavior was complicated and difficult to understand.

“Have you considered the possibility that the compound is a female?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Because females are complicated and difficult to understand."

Hamilton Morris is the science editor of Vice magazine. His book Blood Spore will be published by McSweeney's in 2015.

Photo by Hamilton Morris