People have used chemical compounds both medicinally and recreationally throughout history. Originally, specific substances were extracted from plants, such as with cocaine from the coca plant. During the 19th and 20th centuries, chemists began experimenting with different chemical compounds to produce many of the illegal drugs used today.
Many illegal drug chemists are infamous in popular culture for their formulations, some of which are now known to be addictive, harmful, and even deadly. Yet some of the most famous drug chemists started out with the intention to create substances that would promote health and healing. They were often employed by pharmaceutical companies to find new miracle drugs or cures.
Albert Hofmann (1906–2008)
Best known for the discovery of LSD, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann was born in 1906 in Baden, a Swiss town. The eldest of 4 children, Hofmann was fascinated with nature and spent a great deal of his childhood in the hills of the Swiss countryside. Perhaps due to his love of the natural world, Hofmann decided to study chemistry at Zurich University, completing his Ph.D. in 1929.1
Shortly after his graduation, Hofmann was employed by the Sandoz chemical company and began research on the rye ergot fungus to isolate its pharmaceutical benefits. Other chemists previously discovered specific chemicals in ergot, namely, ergotamine and ergobasine, which showed promise in hastening childbirth and minimizing post-delivery bleeding. They also discovered that these active ergot-derived substances were molecular variants of lysergic acid.2
After much experimentation with these compounds, Hofmann formulated a chemical combination of lysergic acid and diethylamide, and named the resulting compound LSD-25. Hofmann hoped LSD-25 would be the answer to his search for a compound that could stimulate circulation and respiration. However, during experiments, he was unable to find such benefits, though he did note that lab animals became increasingly excited during tests.2
One day in 1943, he accidentally dropped a bit of LSD on his skin. Thinking nothing of it, Hofmann continued his work, but later began to experience restlessness, dizziness, and images when he closed his eyes. Three days later, he deliberately took some of the drug, and he soon realized that LSD was capable of producing “dramatic changes in human consciousness.”3
Hofmann campaigned passionately for the scientific community to recognize the benefits of LSD for psychological and medical use. Until 1971, he continued researching sacred plants as the head of research for natural medicines at Sandoz Laboratories. Hofmann died in 2008 at the age of 102.1
Alexander Shulgin (1925–2014)
Born in Berkeley, California, to parents who were both teachers, Shulgin initially went to Harvard to study chemistry but dropped out at 19. He decided to join the Navy instead. He later returned to his studies, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a doctorate in biochemistry in 1955 from the University of California, Berkeley.4
Shulgin was most famous for his work on psychedelic drugs—particularly on 3,4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, also known as MDMA, or Ecstasy. A German pharmaceutical company formulated the drug in 1912. But while researching a related chemical known as MDA, Shulgin created an easier and newer way to synthesize Ecstasy in 1976.4,5
Although Shulgin is most associated with Ecstasy, he also formulated other drugs, such as a synthetic hallucinogen known as DOM, or 2,5-dimethoxy-4-methylamphetamine, and 2,5-dimethoxy-4-(n)-propylthiophenethylamine, which is more commonly known by its street name, tripstasy.6
Shulgin first tried Ecstasy out on himself. After noticing its mood-altering capabilities, he introduced the chemical to psychiatrist friends to further explore and promote its potential therapeutic benefits, especially its ability to promote feelings of warmth and empathy.7
These benefits resulted in Ecstasy’s popularization during the rave scene in the 1980s. However, Shulgin disapproved of the commercialization of Ecstasy and other drugs he created, which also led to some deaths. He continued with his research until his death in 2014.4
Casey William Hardison (1971-)
Illegal drug chemist Casey William Hardison is best known for formulating hallucinogens such as LSD, though he also worked on many lesser known substances. Born in Washington in 1971, Hardison moved around before ultimately settling in England. He established an drug lab in a back room of a rented house in England, where he formulated a wide range of illicit, rare, and mind-altering drugs.8,9
Hardison openly purchased the chemicals needed to concoct the drugs, but was finally caught in 2003. Customs officials discovered Ecstasy in a package he sent to the U.S. In 2005, Hardison was convicted on 6 charges, which included “making three class A drugs, LSD, 2CB, and DMT, possessing with intent to supply 145,000 doses of LSD with a street value of up to €1 million, and smuggling Ecstasy worth €4,000 from the UK to the USA.”8,9
He was released in May 2015 after spending 9 years in numerous British jails. He was deported back to the United States, where he now campaigns for reform of the 1971 British Misuse of Drugs Act.9
Owsley Stanley (1935–2011)
More popularly known by his nickname, Bear, Stanley was one of the most prominent suppliers of LSD throughout the 1960s and 1970s counterculture movement. Born in 1935 to a political family (his grandfather was the former governor of Kentucky), he was kicked out of military school in 8th grade for drunkenness and dropped out of high school at the age of 18. Although admitted to the University of Virginia, he soon also dropped out and joined the Air Force. He was later accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, but stayed less than a year.10
After discovering a recipe for LSD in a scientific journal, Stanley subsequently started “cooking” acid. Around this time, Stanley also began working with The Grateful Dead as a manager and audio engineer. He developed the first public address system devoted specifically to music. He became a legend in the LSD world and developed Monterey Purple for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. He was soon arrested and served 2 years in prison.10
In a 2007 interview with the San Francisco Gate, he stated, “I never set out to change the world. I only set out to make sure I was taking something [that] I knew what it was.”10 In fact, well-known LSD advocate Ken Kesey and his band of “Merry Pranksters” were said to prefer Stanley’s pure form of LSD over other types.11
Although Stanley stopped manufacturing LSD after his release from prison, he maintained a relationship with The Grateful Dead and was active in the counterculture scene until his death in 2011.12
Anton Kollisch (1888–1916)
Known as the original father of Ecstasy, Anton Kollisch was a German chemist who synthesized MDMA in 1912 while employed by the Merck pharmaceutical company in Darmstadt, Germany. Working with 2 other German chemists, Kollisch accidentally created MDMA while trying to make hydrastinine, a substance used to stop bleeding and assist with blood clotting. Unfortunately, little is known about the rest of Kollisch’s life, save that he died in 1916 during the first World War.13, 14
Nagai Nagayoshi (1845–1929)
Born in Tokushima, Japan, to a prosperous family, Nagai Nagayoshi is best known for being the first person to synthesize methamphetamine.15
Although he originally intended to study medicine in Germany, Nagayoshi decided to pursue a degree in chemistry instead. In 1883, Nagayoshi returned to Japan with a degree in pharmacology.15
He conducted many experiments involving traditional Chinese and Japanese herbs. In 1885, he isolated the chemical ephedrine from the ma huang plant, which was used to treat common symptoms such as colds and headaches. Over the course of several years, Nagayoshi and his students continued their experiments with ephedrine and eventually synthesized methamphetamine.15
In 1919, one of Nagayoshi’s students developed methamphetamine in crystal form. Its stimulant properties became so widely recognized that soldiers in World War II were given the substance to help them stay awake.15 Even Hitler received regular injections of meth during the war years.16
Nagayoshi died in 1929, never to know how his creation eventually became one of the most commonly abused drugs of the 21st century.15
William Leonard Pickard (1945-)
Pickard grew up in the Atlanta suburbs. His father was a lawyer and his mother was a fungal disease expert for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A bright student, he received a scholarship to Princeton, but soon dropped out.18
In 1971, he began working as a research manager at UC Berkeley’s Department of Bacteriology and Immunology and subsequently studied chemistry at San Jose State and Stanford universities. While at San Francisco State, he took a course on social drugs offered by Alexander Shulgin.18
After 2 arrests in the mid-1970s—one for possession of peyote and another after officials uncovered his home Ecstasy lab—Pickard maintained a relatively quiet life. However, in 1988, federal agents again discovered and raided his lab, which he maintained at an architectural shop in an industrial park. There they found 200,000 doses of LSD, which led to him serving 5 years in prison. After jail, he adopted a vegetarian lifestyle and studied Buddhism.18
He enrolled in Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1994, where he met his now-former wife, therapist Deborah Harlow, one of the early advocates of MDMA use in therapy. Pickard continued his academic writing and research, focusing on drug problems in Russia.18,19
After this, he became the assistant director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he continued his research and tracking of new street drugs in Russia. 18 But unbeknownst to drug enforcement officials, he resumed manufacturing LSD at his underground lab in a decommissioned nuclear weapons silo in Kansas.19
In 2000, he was arrested in one of the biggest LSD busts in history and ultimately sentenced to life without parole in 2003.20
Friedrich Serturner (1783–1841)
Known mainly as the first person to isolate the opiate alkaloid morphine, Friedrich Serturner was raised in north-central Germany. At an early age, he began an apprenticeship in an apothecary in 1799, completing his studies 4 years later. At the time, physicians relied mainly on opium as a painkiller and sleep aid, but were concerned about its unpredictable characteristics. Serturner believed that there was an active chemical in opium that, if isolated, would be more reliable and effective.21
In his search for this substance, Serturner was one of the first chemists to use the basic principles of chemical analysis. Eventually, he isolated the chemical, which he named morphine, after Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep. He tested morphine on animals, all of which fell asleep and later died. Despite these results, Serturner persisted with his experiments. He made dosage adjustments and eventually tested the drug on himself and his friends. 21
Although he later published his results, they were largely unnoticed until a French physician read his work and realized the importance of this discovery. Then, in 1818, another French physician published a paper on morphine’s ability to alleviate pain and promote sleep. This work eventually gained the attention of pharmaceutical companies and led George Merck, founder of the Merck pharmaceutical company, to become one of the largest suppliers of the drug during this era.21
Albert Niemann (1834–1861)
A German chemist named Friedrich Gaedcke discovered cocaine by isolating the cocaine molecule from the coca leaf. But his original research received almost no attention. Albert Niemann, another German chemist, repeated Gaedcke’s work and helped popularize cocaine. The Merck pharmaceutical company used his techniques to isolate the cocaine molecule from the coca leaf and produce cocaine for a profit.22
After Niemann’s death in 1861, one of his students carried on his work and discovered cocaine’s chemical formula. Other researchers then conducted experiments with cocaine, and, in the latter half of the 19th century, cocaine was used as a painkiller in surgery and ophthalmology.23
- Smith, C. (2008). Albert Hofmann, the Father of LSD, Dies at 102. The New York Times.
- Shroder, T. (2014). ‘Apparently Useless’: The Accidental Discovery of LSD. The Atlantic.
- Breen, B. (2013). Albert Hofmann Discovers LSD. Origins.
- Power, M. (2014). Alexander Shulgin Obituary. The Guardian.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2017). MDMA (Ecstasy) Abuse: What is the History of MDMA?
- Brown, E. (2002). Professor X. Wired.
- Colker, D. (2014). Alexander Shulgin, Chemist Behind MDMA, Dies at 88. Los Angeles Times.
- Cridland, A. (2006). Drugs Wizard Gets 20 Years. The Argus.
- Allen, M. (2014). The Psychedelic ‘Drugs Wizard’ Who Ran One of England’s Biggest LSD Labs. Vice.
- Selvin, J. (2007). For the Unrepentant Patriarch of LSD, Long, Strange Trip Winds Back to Bay Area. San Francisco Gate.
- Licata, A. (2016). Meet Owsley Stanley III, Grateful Dead’s Acid Cooker. Rolling Stone.
- Ferranti, S. (2016). The Trippy Life of the LSD Manufacturer Who ‘Helped Create the 60s’. Vice.
- Adam, D. (2006). Truth About Ecstacy’s Unlikely Trip from Lab to Dance Floor. The Guardian.
- Benzenhöfer, U. & Passie, T. (2006). The Early History of “Ecstasy”. Der Nervenarzt, 77(1), 95-6, 98-9.
- Laskow, S. (2014). Brewing Bad: The All-Natural Origins of Meth. The Atlantic.
- Doyle, D. (2005). Adolf Hitler’s Medical Care. The Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 35(1), 75-82.
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2011). ATS: Second Most Commonly Abused Drug Type Worldwide.
- Rosenfeld, S. (2001). William Pickard’s Long, Strange Trip/Suspected LSD Trail Leads from the Bay Area’s Psychedelics Era to a Missile Silo in Kansas. San Francisco Gate.
- Rosenfeld, S. (2000). LSD Trafficking Suspect Has Intriguing Backers/D.A. Terence Hallinan and British Aristocrats. San Francisco Gate.
- Ciaramella, C.J. (2016). How the ‘Acid King’ Won a Lawsuit Against the US Government. Vice.
- Sherman, I. (2016). Drugs That Changed The World: How Therapeutic Agents Shaped Our Lives. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
- West, K. (2008). Junior Drug Awareness: Crack and Cocaine. New York: Infobase Publishing.
- Grzybowski, A. (2007). The History of Cocaine in Medicine and its Importance to the Discovery of the Different forms of Anaesthesia. Klinika Oczna, 109(1-3), 101-5.