R. Gordon Wasson

Robert Gordon Wasson (September 22, 1898 – December 23, 1986) was an American author, ethnomycologist, and Vice President for Public Relations at J.P. Morgan & Co.[1][2][3][4]

Robert Gordon Wasson
Robert Gordon Wasson.jpg
Wasson in 1955
Born(1898-09-22)September 22, 1898
DiedDecember 26, 1986(1986-12-26) (aged 88)
NationalityAmerican
Alma materColumbia University Graduate School of Journalism
London School of Economics
AwardsPulitzer Travelling Scholarship
Scientific career
FieldsEthnomycology

In the course of work funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA),[5] Wasson made contributions to the fields of ethnobotany, botany, and anthropology.

CareerEdit

Banking industryEdit

Wasson began his banking career at Guaranty Trust Company in 1928, and moved to J.P. Morgan & Co. in 1934. That same year, he published a book[6] on the Hall Carbine Affair, in which he attempted to exonerate John Pierpont Morgan from guilt with respect to the incident, which had been viewed as an example of wartime profiteering. As early as 1937, Wasson had been attempting to influence historians Allan Nevins and Charles McLean Andrews regarding Morgan's role in the affair; he used Nevins' report[7] as a reference for his own book on the topic. The matter of Morgan's responsibility for the Hall Carbine Incident remains controversial.[8][9]

On July 16, 1941, the directors of Morgan & Co. appointed Wasson to the position of assistant secretary, and by 1943 he was vice president for public relations.[10][11]

EthnomycologyEdit

Wasson's studies in ethnomycology began during his 1927 honeymoon trip to the Catskill Mountains when his wife, Valentina Pavlovna Guercken, a pediatrician, chanced upon some edible wild mushrooms. Fascinated by the marked difference in cultural attitudes towards fungi in Russia compared to the United States, the couple began field research that led to the publication of Mushrooms, Russia and History in 1957.

In the course of their investigations they mounted expeditions to Mexico to study the religious use of mushrooms by the native population, and claimed to have been the first Westerners to participate in a Mazatec mushroom ritual.

It was the curandera María Sabina who both allowed the Wassons to participate in the ritual and who taught them about the uses and effects of the mushroom. Sabina let him take her picture on the condition that he keep it private, but Wasson nonetheless published the photo along with Sabina's name and the name of the community where she lived.[12]

At the 1951 annual meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies, held in Rye, New York, on January 24-26, Wasson was appointed as a member of the Executive Committee for a period of one year.[13]

Some of Wasson's colleagues, such as Ethel Dunn, disagreed with Wasson's conclusions regarding Amanita muscaria.[14]

CIA fundingEdit

Wasson's 1956 expedition was funded[8] by the CIA's MK-Ultra subproject 58, as was revealed by documents[5] obtained by John Marks[15] under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents state that Wasson was an 'unwitting' participant in the project.[5]

The funding was provided under the cover name of the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research (credited by Wasson at the end of his subsequent Life piece about the expedition).

Role in popularizing psilocybin mushroomsEdit

In May 1957, Life magazine published an article titled "Seeking the Magic Mushroom," which introduced psychoactive mushrooms to a wide audience for the first time. Six days later, his wife Valentina's first-person account of their research expedition in Mexico was published on the cover of This Week, a Sunday magazine inserted in 37 newspapers that reach almost 12 million total readers.[16][17][18]

In his memoir, author Tom Robbins talks about the impact of this article on "turning on" Americans himself included.[19] The article sparked immense interest in the Mazatec ritual practice among beatniks and hippies, an interest that proved disastrous for the Mazatec community and for María Sabina in particular.[citation needed] As the community was besieged by Westerners wanting to experience the mushroom-induced hallucinations[citation needed], Sabina attracted attention by the Mexican police who thought that she sold drugs to the foreigners.[citation needed] The unwanted attention completely altered the social dynamics of the Mazatec community and threatened to terminate the Mazatec custom.[citation needed] The community blamed Sabina, and she was ostracized in the community and had her house burned down. Sabina later regretted having introduced Wasson to the practice, but Wasson contended that his only intention was to contribute to the sum of human knowledge.[12][20][21]

MethodologyEdit

Together, Wasson and botanist Roger Heim collected and identified various species of family Strophariaceae and genus Psilocybe, while Albert Hofmann,[22] using material grown by Heim from specimens collected by the Wassons, identified the chemical structure of the active compounds, psilocybin and psilocin. Hofmann and Wasson were also among the first Westerners to collect specimens of the Mazatec hallucinogen Salvia divinorum, though these specimens were later deemed not suitable for rigorous scientific study or taxonomic classification.[23] Two species of mushroom, Psilocybe wassonii R.Heim and Psilocybe wassoniorum Guzman & S.H.Pollock, were named in honor of Wasson by Heim and Gastón Guzmán, the latter of whom Wasson met during an expedition to Huautla de Jiménez in 1957.

Wasson's next major contribution was a study of the ancient Vedic intoxicant soma, which he hypothesized was based on the psychoactive fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushroom. This hypothesis was published in 1967 under the title Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. His attention then turned to the Eleusinian Mysteries, the initiation ceremony of the ancient Greek cult of Demeter and Persephone. In The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (1978), co-authored with Albert Hofmann and Carl A. P. Ruck, it was proposed that the special potion "kykeon", a pivotal component of the ceremony, contained psychoactive ergoline alkaloids from the fungus Ergot (Claviceps spp.).

Several of his books were self-published in illustrated, limited editions, using handmade paper and printed in Italy, that have never been reprinted, with one exception.[24] His last completed work, The Wondrous Mushroom, initially part of the self-published works, was republished by City Lights Publishers in 2014.

EthnographyEdit

Prior to his work on soma, theologians had interpreted the Vedic and Magian practices to have been based on alcoholic beverages that produced inebriation.[citation needed] Wasson was the first researcher to propose that the actual form of Vedic intoxication was entheogenic.[25]

LegacyEdit

Wasson donated his personal papers as a gift to the Harvard University Botanical Museum, as part of the "Tina and Gordon Wasson Ethnomycological Collection." The thoroughly curated array of books, papers, and artifacts contained in the collection was fully settled into its new adoptive home by April 1982.[26]

Wasson's obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle stated that together with his wife and co-author, Valentina P. Wasson, he had "illuminated the sanctity of psychotropic mushrooms, not only in Russia and Siberia, but also in the most ancient of Hindu scriptures, in the mystery cults of ancient Greece and among the native peoples of Mexico and Guatemala, both ancient and modern."[27]

In 2015, the Mycological Society of America (MSA) created a new award named for both Gordon and Valentina in order to recognize non-professionals and people with non-traditional academic backgrounds who have made outstanding contributions to mycology.[28] The first "Gordon and Tina Wasson Award" was presented to Paul Stamets on July 29, 2015, by the organization's former president, D. Jean Lodge, during the MSA meeting in Edmonton, Canada.[28]

BibliographyEdit

ArticlesEdit

BooksEdit

Book contributionsEdit

Book reviewsEdit

CorrespondenceEdit

MusicEdit

Recorded (on July 21/22, 1956) and produced with Valentina Pavlovna Wasson.[29] Liner notes by R. Gordon Wasson. Folkways is now the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution.[30]

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ Staff writer. "Mushroom Madness." TIME Magazine (June 16, 1958). Archived from the original.
  2. ^ Tarinas, Joaquim. "Robert Gordon Wasson: Seeking the Magic Mushroom." Imaginaria.org.
  3. ^ Biography in Tina & R. Gordon Wasson Ethnomycological Collection Archives at Harvard University Herbaria. Archived from the original.
  4. ^ Jacobs, Travis Beal. Eisenhower at Columbia. Preface by Eli Ginzberg. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers (2001). pp. 99-100. ISBN 978-0765800367.
  5. ^ a b c "J.P. Morgan & Co. (see Wasson file)." MKUltra Subproject, no. 58 (doc: 17457). Washington, D.C.: National Security Archive at George Washington University.
  6. ^ Wasson, R. Gordon (1941). The Hall Carbine Affair: A Study in Contemporary Folklore. New York: Pandick Press.
  7. ^ Nevins, Allan (1939). Frémont: Pathmarker of the West. D. Appleton-Century Co.
    "New and enlarged version of the 1928 ed. published under the title: Frémont, the West's Greatest Adventurer."
  8. ^ a b Irvin, Jan. "R. Gordon Wasson: The Man, the Legend, the Myth" (Chapter 14). In: Entheogens and the Development of Culture. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books (2013), pp. 565-619. Edited by John Rush. ISBN 978-1583946244.
  9. ^ Andrews papers. Yale University Library. Box 37, Folder 419; Box 40, Folder 441; Box 42, Folder 460.
  10. ^ Staff writer (July 17, 1941). "Morgan & Co. Announce Changes." New York Times. p. 32.
  11. ^ Pfister, Donald H. (1988). "R. Gordon Wasson, 1898-1986." Mycologia, vol. 80, no. 1. pp. 11–13. doi:10.2307/3807487. JSTOR 3807487.
  12. ^ a b Estrada, Álvaro (1976). Vida de María Sabina: la sabia de los hongos. Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores. ISBN 9682305136.
  13. ^ Baugh, Albert C., et al. "Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth Annual Meeting of the Corporation." Speculum, vol. 26, no. 3 (July 1951), pp. 562–573. JSTOR 2850907.
  14. ^ Dunn, Ethel. Russian use of Amanita muscaria: A Footnote to Wasson's Soma. Review of Soma by R. Gordon Wasson Current Anthropology, vol. 14, no. 4 (October 1973), pp. 488-492.
  15. ^ Marks, John D. The Search for the Manchurian Candidate. London: Times Books (1979), p. 114. ISBN 978-0812907735.
  16. ^ Wasson, Valentina Pavlovna (May 19, 1957). "I Ate the Sacred Mushroom." This Week. pp. 8–10, 36.
  17. ^ Siff, Stephen (2018). "R. Gordon Wasson and the Publicity Campaign to Introduce Magic Mushrooms to Mid-Century America." Revue française d’études américaines, vol. 156, no. 3. pp. 91-104.
  18. ^ Bartlett, Amy (November 11, 2020). "The Cost of Omission: Dr. Valentina Wasson and Getting Our Stories Right." Chacruna.
  19. ^ Robbins, Tom (2014). Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life. New York: HarperCollins. pp. 190-191. ISBN 978-0062267405.
  20. ^ Letcher, Andy (2006). Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom. England: Faber and Faber. pp. 97-98. ISBN 978-0571227709.
  21. ^ Rothenberg, Jerome (2003). Editor's Preface to Selections by María Sabina. University of California Press. p. xvi.
  22. ^ Hoffman, Albert (1980). LSD—My Problem Child. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0070293250.
  23. ^ "The History of the First Salvia Divinorum Plants Cultivated Outside of Mexico." sagewisdom.org.
  24. ^ "R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986) Archives." Harvard University Herbaria. Archived from the original.
  25. ^ Lecture on Indoeuropean languages.[dead link]
  26. ^ Staff writer (2002). "Provenance: R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986) Archives." The Tina & R. Gordon Wasson Ethnomycological Collection Archives. Harvard University Herbaria. Archived from the original.
  27. ^ Staff writer. "R. Gordon Wasson" (obituary) (December 27, 1986). San Francisco Chronicle. p. 14.
  28. ^ a b Weber, Evi, et al. (2015). "Awards and Personalia: The Gordon and Tina Wasson Award." IMA Fungus, vol. 6, no. 2 (2015), pp. 51–55. doi:10.1007/BF03449353.
  29. ^ Staff writer."Maria Sabína: Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico." boomkat.
  30. ^ Staff writer. "Maria Sabína: Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico." Smithsonian Folkways.

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