The California countercultural figure Ann Shulgin, in partnership with her chemist husband, Alexander (Sasha), created, documented and explored a vast array of psychedelic drugs from the 1970s onwards, both for recreational purposes – to access inner consciousness – and as psychedelic-assisted therapy for anxiety and related disorders. Decades later, results from current trials using MDMA (the active ingredient in ecstasy) to help people with post-traumatic stress and other disorders are promising, endorsing Ann’s view that it and other such drugs can have a key role in psychotherapy.
Ann, who has died aged 91, had been interested in the potential of psychedelic substances since living in San Francisco in her 20s, describing the first time she took the cactus-derived drug mescaline as “one extraordinary blessed day”.
In 1978 she met Sasha Shulgin, a research chemist, at a party, and they immediately bonded over their interest in psychedelics. She became involved with his work, creating and testing new psychedelic substances in his home laboratory, which he called “the farm”, in Lafayette, California. The couple married in 1981.
Sasha had a licence to research classified drugs. He created hundreds of psychedelic compounds, which he and Ann would try first on themselves and then on a select group of volunteers. Initially able to get papers about his work published in academic chemistry journals, he was finding it difficult from the beginning of the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan reinforced the “war on drugs” policy of his predecessors, and editors grew nervous about appearing to endorse psychedelic research.
Undeterred, the couple set up their own publishing company, Transform Press, in 1991. They wrote up 179 phenethylamines (with information on dosages and how to make them) in a book, PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (1991; PiHKAL stands for “phenethylamines I have known and loved”).
Sasha had long had a good relationship with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), working from time to time as a pharmacological adviser, but PiHKAL was a step too far for the authorities, who described it and a later volume as “cookbooks on how to make illegal drugs”, and in 1994 the Shulgins’ property was raided by the DEA. Sasha was fined and lost his research licence. Afterwards the couple avoided drugs that were classified or banned, but continued to create new ones, publishing the second volume in 1997: TiHKAL: The Continuation (tryptamines I have known and loved”). Both volumes acquired a cult following.
Ann, who described herself as a lay therapist, did not have formal training but was self-taught and well read, especially in Jungian psychotherapy. She believed we all have a “shadow”: a part of ourselves that is troubling and frightening, which we repress. She said the value of MDMA and other drugs in a therapeutic context was that they helped people to accept and love themselves and come to terms with their shadow: “The magic of MDMA is that it allows you to see who you are without self-rejection. It gives you insight into yourself and is especially good for PTSD.”
Her view of MDMA is supported by current research. A classified drug in the UK since 1977, it is currently in trials in the UK and US as a medical treatment for PTSD, anxiety and alcoholism. Some predict it will also have a use in couples therapy. It works by promoting the release of serotonin, which makes people feel optimistic and upbeat, and also acts on the amygdala in the brain, calming the fight-or-flight response. In people with anxiety or PTSD this response can be too rapidly triggered, making discussion of their trauma unbearable, but taking MDMA at the start of a therapy session could help people reflect on issues more calmly.
As a therapist using such drugs, Ann cared very much about safety, saying that therapists should have previously taken any drug they were administering (so they were familiar with its effect) and should engage in work with their own “shadow” before treating others. She also taught that it was important for the therapist to stay with their client until the drug had worn off (even if that was many hours).
Born Laura Ann in Wellington, New Zealand, she was the daughter of Gwen (nee Ormiston) a native New Zealander, and Bernard Gotlieb, the US consul in New Zealand. His career took the family around the world – shortly after her brother, Ted, was born in 1933 they moved to Sicily and then to Trieste in Italy, followed by periods in Cuba and Canada, where Ann went to Alma college in St Thomas, Ontario, before attending High Mowing school in New Hampshire, in the US.
By the time Ann left school, her father had retired to San Francisco, and she studied commercial art in the city. At 20, she married a fellow art student and had a son, Christopher McRee, but the marriage failed and Christopher stayed with his father and his new wife. Ann was only scratching a living as a medical transcriber in a San Francisco hospital at the time, describing her life as “dry, anxious and slightly grey”.
However, after a second brief marriage to a friend from childhood, Vadim, she married a Jungian psychiatrist, John Weir Perry, in 1960 and had three more children, Wendy, Alice and Brian. In 1969 she divorced once more, and went back to working as a medical transcriber before meeting Sasha in 1978.
Ann was hugely hospitable and, from the 90s onwards, despite fears that her phone could be tapped or that undercover police might infiltrate their circle, regularly hosted Wednesday potluck dinners for friends, family and acquaintances interested in psychedelics. After Sasha’s death in 2014 she continued to enjoy life at the centre of California bohemian society, giving a speech on “the shadow” to the Women’s Visionary Council in Oakland in 2019, as well as presiding over the work of Transform Press and Sasha’s research legacy.
She is survived by her four children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.