The man who would revolutionize attitudes towards psilocybin mushrooms, who founded a movement into research of mushrooms, R. Gordon Wasson had the unlikely background of being a New York banker.
He was the son of a clergyman, a gentleman, and also the founder of ethnomycology, the modern science of mushrooms and psychedelic drug trips. Hallucinogenic mushrooms are as old as humankind – or even older! But they have been taboo in Western societies for a long time. R. Gordon Wasson was the man who exposed them to English-speaking North American consciousness.
How was R. Gordon Wasson exposed to mushrooms?
R. Gordon Wasson became interested in mushrooms when he took a walk with his Russian wife in the forest. To her, mushrooms had always been an important part of life, where they had not been to him. She suddenly ran deeper into the woods, and knelt ecstatically before some mushrooms. He asked what she’d found and if they were poisonous. She said, no, the mushrooms she had found were wonderful mushrooms. Wasson thought that was a bit strange, so he began to study mushrooms in different cultures. This is basically the field of ethnomycology, the history of mushrooms across different cultures and times.
He and his wife began to write a mushroom cookbook together, eventually leading to a comparative scientific study of mushrooms. They continued their research alongside their regular jobs for more than 30 years. It was the research into Russia and its mushrooms which led them to psychedelic mushrooms. They followed up on every clue, speaking to a wide variety of people around the world. They analyzed paintings and folk tales and rituals that were said to have taken place.
When did R Gordon Wasson have a psychedelic mushroom experience?
In 1955, Wasson and his wife Valentina went to Mexico, in northern Oaxaca, in order to experience the psychedelic mushroom they had researched so thoroughly. They stayed in a small town, riding in on mules. They researched the mushroom, where the mushrooms were, where they were growing, and then participated in one of the rituals, the velada, related to mushroom use in that area, the mushroom right. A shaman in Mexico, Maria Sabina, gave Gordon some of the “flesh of the gods.” He became the first outsider to participate in a velada and to taste the mushroom himself.
Gordon Wasson was deeply impressed by Maria Sabina. She saw mushrooms as a kind of medicine. To her, the mushroom spoke of a world of saints of the dead. It came from the realm of the gods. Through her, the mushrooms spoke to the sick, offering revelation and healing. For Maria Sabina, the Catholic faith had merged with her Mazatec traditions. Spanish colonizers had tried to purge the Mazatecs of their rituals through religious subjugation, but the mushroom rituals persisted.
How did R Gordon Wasson become a public figure in psychedelics?
In 1957, Wasson published an article about his ecstatic encounters with Mexican magic mushrooms in Life Magazine. The story was even promoted on the cover as mushrooms that caused strange visions. For the first time, a huge reading public learned about magic mushrooms. After this, there was no turning back.
Through this article, Wasson brought these funky fungi into public consciousness, into an area of recognition that was not good or evil but simply curiosity inspiring. He opened up a large area of inquiry that would have been closed, and the world is much richer for it.
How did R. Gordon Wasson feel about the psychedelic mushroom’s explosion in popularity?
Because he had come to the psychedelic mushroom from a place of academic curiosity, he was quite upset at the treatment Maria Sabina and her townsfolk received at the hands of the 60s hippie movement. People used psychedelic mushrooms as a way to have a high or an experience when the mushrooms were very sacred to the Mazatec, and used in religious ceremonies.
Before the term became so popular in the 21st century, Wasson was conscious of the cultural appropriation he had unwittingly encouraged with his Life article.
How did R. Gordon Wasson contribute to psychedelic research?
Wasson was important to psychedelic research in that he “rediscovered” shrooms and brought them back to Europe where they became a popular topic for psychedelic research. This trip led to an analysis of the structure of psilocybin, converted to psilocin in the body. It has been a unique and valuable tool for researchers, because psilocybin has enabled them to produce very specific states of mind, which can then be researched with modern medicine. Psilocybin and psychedelics in general are very important discoveries in biological research.
Psilocybin created new areas of interest for scientists to study. Hallucinogenic mushrooms were a major focus of the 1996 Study of Consciousness in Heidelberg. The pioneers of consciousness research are still studying psilocybin today. Therapists, chemists, philosophers, and physicians alike.
Did Wasson know Albert Hoffman?
Wasson had asked Hoffman, the chemist, to isolate the active substance of magic mushrooms where others had failed. Since Hoffman had discovered LSD, the discovery of psilocybin was on the same level of contribution to the scientific community. The two psychedelic names were actually dear friends at certain points in their lives.