The R. Gordon Wasson Trip That Changed Everything

R Gordon Wasson knew little about mushrooms before meeting his wife-to-be. Calling them putrid, he attributed his distaste to his Anglo-Saxon upbringing. His wife, Valentina Pavlovna, had an appreciation for the tasty forest treats, having learned to forage for them during her upbringing in Russia. 

During the couple’s honeymoon in the Catskills in 1927, as Valentina foraged for mushrooms in the woods, Robert became interested in learning more. The couple would go on to publish a book, Mushrooms, Russia, and History, in 1957. 

He had become a full-blown amateur mycologist and now described the fungi which he formerly found distasteful as “divine.” 

Discovering psychedelics

In this case, Wasson was referring to psychedelic mushrooms, which he tried in 1955 while partaking in a ritual ceremony by the indigenous Mazatec people of Mexico. Having heard about the mushrooms that supposedly had a mind-altering effect, Wasson searched and spent time in a small Mexican village in order to experience them for himself. These mushrooms, and their use, were until then, relatively unknown, and it is possible that Wasson was the very first non-indigenous person to take part in the ceremony. That all changed after Wasson’s visit. In 1957, he wrote an account of his Mexico trip for a Life magazine article. That article introduced the American public to psychedelic mushrooms and sparked an interest in these “magic” mushrooms. 

Wasson brought some of those fungi back to America with him, where he sent them off to Dr. Puharich in Maine. The doctor analyzed the samples, figured out the active psychedelic ingredients, and then tried out those chemicals on himself. He also distributed them to others to try. 

Wasson had inadvertently contributed to the beginnings of the psychedelic counterculture movement. 

Regrets

The Life magazine article also led to a rise in the number of travelers seeking out the same experiences Wasson had in Mexico. In later years, Wasson would come to voice his regret at the spotlight his story shone on the Mazatec people and how the once sacred mushroom ritual had been, in his view, defiled. In fact, Wasson had previously agreed to keep the identity of the subjects of his story confidential, but he reneged on that agreement by publishing his article.

The publicity proved disastrous for the Mazatec community, particularly for Maria Sabina, the woman who introduced Wasson and his wife to the ritual use of psychedelics. Police accused her of selling drugs to foreigners. Community members, upset at the influx of drug-seeking tourists and increased attention, burned down her house. 

It’s easy to think of Wasson as some long-haired proto-hippie wandering around Mexico looking for a way to get high. But the reality is far different. Wasson was a bank executive. His wife, the mushroom fan who sparked his interest in fungi, was a medical doctor. They were upstanding citizens with professional jobs. They also happened to be funded by the CIA. 

As part of the spy agency’s MK Ultra program, Wasson’s trip was funded by the CIA unbeknownst to him in the hopes that he would return with mind-altering mushrooms. Wasson was unaware of the CIA’s involvement in the form of the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research, which he credited in the Life article as funding his trip.

Today, psychedelics are evolving beyond their counterculture mystique into a viable treatment for addiction, depression, and many other ailments. Wasson’s trip was the spark for widespread psilocybin use in the United States, and his article had drastic ramifications for our culture as well as the Mazatec culture that shared their powers with him. R Gordon Wasson is still viewed as a pioneering figure in the realm of psychedelics, and there’s no doubt he is, for better or for worse.

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