The Discovery of Ecstasy

Publication Year: 
2008

Image retrieved from heimatsammlung.de on September 19th, 2014.


Contrary to popular belief, Ecstasy is not a relatively new drug that first appeared in the 1980s. It was actually first synthesized almost 70 years before it became synonymous with the rave dance scene. As with LSD and many other drugs, its birthplace was a European chemistry lab.
In early 1912, German chemist Anton Köllisch was working for pharmaceutical giant Merck in Darmstadt when he inadvertently created 3, 4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine—a.k.a. Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or simply : MDMA. Popular myth has it that Merck were trying to create an appetite suppressant at the time; in fact, Köllisch was initially endeavouring to devise a styptic (a drug intended to slow the bleeding from wounds). Merck's main rival, Bayer, had already patented a blood-clotting medicine (hydrastinine), so Köllisch was under considerable pressure to deliver a successful alternative. Convinced that a similar compound, methylhydrastinin, would be equally effective, he set out trying to create it without infringing on Bayer's patent. In the process, he accidentally produced an intermediate chemical—MDMA__for which Merck filed a patent on Christmas Eve 1912.
The patent was granted two years later, on May 16, 1914—two months before the start of world war 1. Köllisch, however, was killed in the subsequent fighting (he died in September 1916), so he never appreciated the huge ramifications his work would have.
Merck were not new to introducing class A drugs to the market. After Wilhelm Adam Sertürner”s isolation of morphine from opium in 1804, Merck pioneered the commercial manufacture of morphine for an expanding global market. Nearly 80 years later, the company were playing a vigorous role in the production and marketing of cocaine. Sigmund Freud, famous psychologist, cokehead, and author of Über coca (1884), was an enthusiastic collaborator in merck's coca research.
Although its patent had been filed in 1912, MDMA was not at this time tested on either animals or humans. Indeed, it seems that Merck forgot all about its drug—though it was the subject of a Polish-language scientific paper in 1924. It wasn't until 1927 that Merck carried out the first tests, on animals. Chemist Max Oberlin discovered Merck's patent and began his own work on MDMA, which he thought might have similar properties to adrenaline, as their structures were closely related. The results of his work he described as “partly remarkable,” but Oberlin was forced to stop his research when the cost of the chemicals needed to make MDMA rose sharply. (“keep an eye on this field,” he advised the company.) Merck did so; tests in 1952 revealed that the drug was poisonous to flies. Which is why you see so few of them at raves.
More controversial is the subject of the first trial tests on humans. Although no official records exist, Merck believe that one of its chemists, Wolfgang Furhstorfer, might have carried out the first test on humans in 1959. Not only that, but the US Air Force were carrying out secret trials of MDMA and other drugs (including MDMA's realtions MDA, DMA, and MDE) in the early 50s. It is well documented that they gave enlisted men LSD, so it's possible that they popped a couple of Es in there at the same time, though no evidence has emerged to back this up. The US military used the drug in experiments in 1953, but although it is often claimed that they were searching for a truth serum at the time, the tests were actually carried out on animals, and it's more likely the authorities were looking to create new chemical weapons. Still, the image of loved-up guinea pigs and mice is a nice one. The air force gave MDMA the name EA-1475—with the EA standing for Edgewood Arsenal, where the chemicals were synthesized; the results of these studies were not declassified until 1969.
By then others had picked up the MDA baton and run with it. In 1970, MDMA cropped up in tablets seized by the authorities in Chicago. It was out of the lab and on the street; the genie was fully out of the bottle.

pp. 12-15 of The Incredibly Strange History of Ecstasy by Tim Pilcher (2008)

Die Werkanlagen der E. Merck AG Darmstadt
ShareThis