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R. Gordon Wasson: Author and Mushroom Expert

R. Gordon Wasson: Author and Mushroom Expert
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Following a life-changing trip to Mexico, R. Gordon Wasson became the “first white man in recorded history to eat the divine mushrooms”. As a result, the amateur mycologist and author became an important symbol for the psychonaut community. Before earning international recognition and an immortal reputation as a pioneer within the psychedelic community, Wasson worked in the banking field. Read on to learn about the life and times of R. Gordon Wasson.

Who Was R. Gordon Wasson

Robert Gordon Wasson was a “legendary mushroom expert”. Born on September 22, 1898, in Montana, Robert was an American author, ethnomycologist, and Vice President for Public Relations at J.P. Morgan & Co. Wasson made a groundbreaking contribution to the fields of ethnobotany, botany, and anthropology as a result of CIA-funded research in the late 1950s.

Wasson was, and is still to this day, a popular figure within the psychonaut community for his innovative and educating research on magic mushrooms. Furthermore, Wasson has been a prominent figure and symbol for destigmatizing the consumption of psilocybin.

Before dedicating his work to the study of magic mushrooms, Wasson studied at the Columbia School of Journalism, followed by the London School of Economics where he received the first Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship. Then, the mushroom expert then pursued a career in teaching at Columbia University before working as a reporter for the New Haven Register in Connecticut.

Discovering Mushrooms

Wasson settled in New York City by 1925, where he wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. Next, he then took a job with J.P. Morgan & Co in 1934. As surprising as it might sound, the magic mushroom expert excelled in the field of banking public relations and served as vice president from 1943 to 1963. It was in 1927 that Wasson was first introduced to mushrooms by his wife, Valentina Pavlovna Guercken. On their honeymoon in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Valentina found psilocybin mushrooms. She had thought they looked similar to the ones she was familiar with in Russia, her native country.

As a result, the couple developed a strong interest in mycology and studied related disciplines. A trip to Siberia was a turning point in the couple’s work. There they discovered six “extant primitive peoples” who used psychedelic mushrooms for their shamanistic rites. Consequently, the author became an emblematic person within the psychedelic community after publishing an article titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” for Life Magazine in 1957. It was the first time psychoactive mushrooms were introduced to a wide audience.

Ethnomycology Studies

R. Gordon Wasson began his ethnomycological studies in 1927. As stated, it all started during his honeymoon trip to the Catskill Mountains with his wife. It was Guercken, a pediatrician, who discovered the edible wild mushrooms. She became transfixed by the cultural difference in attitude towards mushrooms between Russia and the United States. Moreover, Guercken was fascinated by how Russia seemed to have adopted a more lenient attitude toward the consumption of psilocybin as opposed to the West.

In 1955, Wasson visited Maria Sabina, a Mazatec healer who used sacred magic mushrooms to treat her patients. She lived and worked in her hometown of Huautla de Jiménez, a town in the Sierra Mazateca area of the Mexican state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Wasson participated in a “velada” with the healer – a healing vigil carried out by Mazatec “curanderos”, who are traditional healers. The rituals involve the use of psilocybin to contemplate God and experience enlightenment and broad-mindedness.

Cultivation

Following this experience, Wasson collected spores of the fungus used during his velada, and identified them as “Psilocybe mexicana”, which he brought with him to Paris, France. Their travels were life-changing, and Wasson and his wife published their research “Mushrooms, Russia and History” in 1957. Additionally, Wasson was able to cultivate his fungus collection in Europe. From there, the mushrooms landed in the hands of Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist. It was Hofmann who isolated the fungus’ main psychoactive component – psilocybin – in a laboratory in 1958.

Because of his revolutionary work on psilocybin and its isolated psychoactive components, Wasson is considered the discoverer of the magic mushroom and the man who debuted the psychedelic movement. Wasson has also been considered the “father” of the field of ethnomycology.

Wasson and Psilocybin 

Wasson’s “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” article for Life Magazine significantly popularized magic mushrooms. Tom Robbins, an American novelist, wrote in his memoir that Wasson’s article “turned on” Americans, including himself. As a matter of fact, the article for Life Magazine inspired many people and sparked a compelling interest in Mazatec rituals, particularly among hippies. The famous American psychologist, Timothy Leary, dedicated an entire chapter in his book, High Priest to Wasson, as the mushroom expert was praised for his work and admired by the psychedelic revolution leaders.

Wasson was able to tell prominent figures of the psychonaut community how to take hallucinogens, what to expect from the substances, and under what conditions to take them. This information was well received and celebrated.

As a talented and passionate ethnomycologist, Wasson could often find ancient histories relating to psilocybin. In 1963, he began researching the identity of “Indian Soma” – a ritual drink within the Vedic tradition. He backed his research with the theory that Soma could be identified as the “Amanita Muscaria Mushroom”. This hypothesis was a significant breakthrough as there have been various speculations about the ritual drink’s most likely identity. Researchers worldwide have proposed Soma’s origins to be linked with other components such as Amanita Muscaria and Ephedra Sinica.

In Culture

Awards

  • The Pulitzer Travelling Scholarship – Wasson is the first person to ever receive this award. The Pulitzer Prizes and Fellowships, “established in Columbia University by the will of the first Joseph Pulitzer, are awarded by the University on the recommendation of the Pulitzer Prize Board. The Board meets twice annually. The Prizes are announced during the spring.”
  • Addison Emery Verrill Medal of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University – The medal was presented to R. Gordon Wasson in 1983. The Verrill Medal “was created in 1959 by then-director S. Dillon Ripley to honor “signal practitioners in the arts of natural history and natural sciences.” It is named for Addison Emery Verrill (1839-1926), Yale’s first professor of zoology and one of the Peabody’s first curators.”

Books

  • The Hall Carbine Affair – Published in 2015, it is a reproduction of a historical artifact based on Wasson’s work.
  • The Wondrous Mushroom – Published in 1980,  it is a reflection on Wasson’s studies and personal experiences on shamanism, culture, community well-being, healing, and spiritual strength.
  • The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries – Published in 1978, it comprises the work of Wasson and two other experts who argue that the sacred potion given to participants in the course of the ritual in ancient Greece contained a psychoactive entheogen.
  • Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality – Published in 1968, it outlines the role of the fly agaric as Soma in primitive Indo-European religion.
  • The Sacred Mushroom Seeker: Essays for R. Gordon Wasson – Published in 1997, it a celebration of Wasson’s life and pioneering work.

Media and Culture

In popular culture – R. Gordon Wasson’s work made its way into the mainstream. In his famous article for Life Magazine in 1957, Maria Sabina’s name and location remained confidential. As a result, many young people from the United States, including hippies and celebrities, have been seeking out Maria Sabina. However, by the 1960s, celebrities, such as Bob Dylan and John Lenon were rumored to have visited the Mazatec healer.

  • Rare video interview of R. Gordon Wasson in 1979.
  • “The Mushroom Man” documentary.
  • “Psychedelic Science: Magic Mushrooms” documentary.
  • Gordon Wasson’s Hidden Ties to the Vatican: Interview with Jerry Brown.

Top R. Gordon Wasson Quotes

“It is in the nature of a hypothesis when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates everything to itself, as proper nourishment, and from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows stronger by everything you see, hear or understand.”

― R. Gordon Wasson, Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens And The Origins Of Religion

“Each of us had harbored a nascent thought that we had been too shy to express even to each other: religion possibly underlay the myco-, phobia contrast that marked the peoples of Europe.”

― R. Gordon Wasson, Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens And The Origins Of Religion

“Ecstasy! In common parlance ecstasy is fun. But ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles. After all, who will choose to feel undiluted awe? The unknowing vulgar abuse the word; we must recapture its full and terrifying sense.”

― R. Gordon Wasson 

“Ergot, growing millennia later on certain cultivated grains, seems to have coincided in its arrival on the human stage with the discovery by Man of agriculture.”

― R. Gordon Wasson, Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens And The Origins Of Religion

“Early Man in Ancient Greece could have worked out a potion with the desired effect from the ergot of wheat or barley cultivated on the famous Rarian plain adjacent to Fleusis; or indeed front the ergot of a grass, called Paspalum distinct, that grows around the Mediterranean. If the Greek herbalists had the intelligence and resourcefulness of their mesoamerican counterparts, they would have had no difficulty in preparing an entheogenic potion: so said Albert Hofmann and he explained why.”

― R. Gordon Wasson, Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens And The Origins Of Religion

“Three millennia ago Soma was known to the Brahmans, who composed many hymns exalting it. The hymns to Soma are still being sung, yet no one, not even among the Brahmans, knows what it was.”

― R. Gordon Wasson, Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens And The Origins Of Religion

“We were seeking an answer to the strange fact that a mushroom, one single species, the pucka, was ‘animate’ in their language, was ‘endowed with a soul’, like all animals and human beings, but unlike all other vegetation, which is construed grammatically as ‘inanimate’, as ‘without a soul’.”

― R. Gordon Wasson

CONTRIBUTING RS AUTHOR: ANDRÉA OLDEREIDE

Andréa is a London-based journalist who loves to write and cover anything out of the ordinary. You can probably find her reviewing a drag show or walking her dog if she isn’t sitting by her computer with a cup of coffee writing something. Andréa has written for an LGBTQ-based website as well as a fatherhood themed publication and more. Andréa definitely never limits her writings to one specific area. Most importantly, she has always been fascinated by the mind and how our brains function, so you can expect a lot of research-based articles from her. Feel free to follow her on Insta @drewithanaccent and Twitter @Dre_Oldereide

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