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Chemistry Survival
by Paul F. Daley, PhD
Feb 2016
Citation:   Daley, PF. "Chemistry Survival". Erowid Extracts. Feb 2016;28:8-10. Online edition: Erowid.org/culture/characters/shulgin_alexander/shulgin_alexander_article5.shtml
Sasha's Lab Shelf with Acetonitrile, pH paper, & Mickey
Photo by Paul Daley
A photo of items on a shelf in Alexander Shulgin's laboratory. Shown are acetonitrile, pH paper, and Mickey wizard toy.
Poncho Wears Protective Gear During Cleanup of Magic Stockroom
Photo by Paul Daley
Team Shulgin's Poncho wearing protective gear during the cleanup of the Magic Stockroom.
Chemical Sample/Standard Boxes from Sasha's Lab
Photo by Paul Daley
Re-organized chemical sample vials from Alexander Shulgin's laboratory.
Chemical Storage Cabinet from Sasha's Lab
Photo by Paul Daley
Chemical bottles from Alexander Shulgin's laboratory.
Chemical Sample/Standard Boxes from Sasha's Lab
Photo by Paul Daley
Two degraded boxes of vials of indexed chemical samples from Alexander Shulgin's laboratory.
"So, would you like to see the lab?" "Well, yeah!", I said (who wouldn't!?), and so we walked out the back door of the house, down a dirt path, across a rough-sawn two-by-twelve board spanning a rivulet, and proceeded to a small, cinder block building nestled in a grove of trees. The door was opened, and I walked into an alchemist's hangout, Sasha Shulgin's laboratory.

That was in the fall of 1977. I had met Alexander Shulgin that October, and he invited me to visit "The Farm", after finding out I had just started my PhD program at his beloved UC Berkeley. I had a vague recollection of reading his papers during a research project I'd done some five years earlier on tryptamines in Phalaris grasses that were implicated in sheep poisonings. But that job was scant preparation for my future life with Sasha.

Skipping forward to the early 2000s, I began to visit Sasha and the Farm after a long (too long!) absence, helping out as seemed appropriate, fixing his computers, chatting about chemistry, watching the scene. I became a regular at the twice-yearly barbecue potlucks the Shulgins threw for their friends and extended-Bay Area psychedelic community.

In 2007 I lucked into an opportunity to work with Sasha, to be his "eyes and hands" in the lab, and to explore continuing his research. Sasha's eyesight had deteriorated significantly with macular degeneration, and his lab showed the effects of that handicap. In my first months working with Sasha, I cleaned, made minor necessary modifications to bring the lab once again to safe and working conditions, and looked toward the future.

Prior to Sasha's death, we had begun sorting, cataloging, and moving the contents of his chemical "magic stockroom", identifying the collection of compounds he had made, and finding the material remains of his chemistry. Evaluation of the stockroom revealed that it was seismically unsound for long-term storage of the wide variety of chemicals Sasha had accumulated. Poncho (pictured below, center) brought two additional PhD organic chemists, and the four of us did back-of-the-pickup truck analytical chemistry to identify the contents of each bottle or container.

In all, nine people worked on this cleanup for more than seven days. I was a certified hazardous waste site operator for 25 years at Lawrence Livermore labs and my hundreds of hours of training prepared me well to lead the process.

We discovered samples of Sasha's creations dating all the way back to his doctoral dissertation (stable isotope-labeled amino acids!), pesticide precursors from his days at Dow Chemical, and many of the unscheduled compounds described in PiHKAL and TiHKAL. A lot of these rare or unique compounds were unfortunately stored in less than ideal conditions, and transplanting them to new homes is an ongoing project. To improve safety, seismic survivability, and access, Sasha's supply of stockroom chemicals was moved to fireproof cabinets in a steel shipping container.

Since Sasha's been gone, we've ramped up the cataloging of these materials to improve access for further research. This process has allowed us to identify expired or unstable chemicals and develop a database of starting materials and other oddball compounds in the collection that number in the thousands.

Though there are immense challenges to continuing the Shulgin laboratory as a viable research installation, we are moving ahead, and are keeping Sasha's vision alive.

Paul, Poncho, and Mark During Cleanup of Magic Stockroom
Photo courtesy Paul Daley
Dr Paul Daley wearing his signature tye-dyed lab coat, Poncho, and Mark from Team Shulgin during the cleanup of the Magic Stockroom.
Team Shulgin During Cleanup of the Magic Stockroom
Photo by Paul Daley
A photo of one of Team Shulgin during the cleanup of the Magic Stockroom of Alexander Shulgin's lab.
Chemical Storage Cabinet from Sasha's Lab
Photo by Paul Daley
A glass-doored chemical storage cabinet from the lab of Alexander Shulgin.
Cleaned and Tidied Chemical Storage Cabinet for Team Shulgin
Photo by Paul Daley
A chemical storage cabinet after it was tidied and cleaned at the lab of Team Shulgin.
Chemical Storage Cabinet from Sasha's Lab
Photo by Paul Daley
A glass-doored chemical storage cabinet from the lab of Alexander Shulgin.
Index Card from a Box of Chemicals
Photo by Paul Daley
A paper "Sample Storage Index Card 5/20" of brand Cargille from a storage box of chemical vials from the lab of Alexander Shulgin.
"I have a magic stockroom with 10-15,000 chemicals in it. If [anyone] wanted to reproduce that, they'd be very hard-pressed. I have been collecting materials from a university here and a company there - anywhere they're told by the environmental people, 'Get rid of these things. They're carcinogenic, they're explosive, they're all kinds of negative things, and since you have people employed here, you can't keep this in stock.' So I get a phone call saying, 'We're coming in with a bunch of boxes.' And it's beautiful. It's sort of an idea source. I browse amongst the latest and see what I can do with it."

- Dr. Shulgin, in a 2005 High Times interview with David Bienenstock

Photo Credits #
  1. All photos from the Shulgin Archive.
Revision History #
  • v1.0 - Feb 2016 - published in Erowid Extracts.
  • v1.1 - Nov 2016 - Erowid - Published on Erowid.org.