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Merck Digs Up Truth About Role in the Birth of Ecstasy

DW staff (nda)August 18, 2006

German pharmaceutical company Merck has fielded questions about its role in the creation of rave drug ecstasy for years. Now, the company has investigated itself and found out the truth about MDMA.

Everything starts with E: Merck's association with the rave drug began in 1912Image: picture-alliance/rh

For all those who have sweated profusely while having feelings of intense love for everything from furniture to the cosmos, the news that German pharmaceutical company Merck has come clean on its role in the creation of ecstasy will probably have little impact.

While the company has never exactly denied that it created the chemical compound MDMA, there have been many stories as to why and how. One of the more popular is the story that Merck was asked by the German government way back in 1912 to create a drug that could suppress the appetites of soldiers in the German army.

In this story, the embryonic ecstasy was quickly shelved after the human test subjects started to show bizarre side effects. A squad of German troops grimacing and taking their shirts off to the marching band may well have been enough to scare even the most innovative scientists away from taking the testing further.

This tale is given credence by no end of scientific tomes including medical reports, newspaper articles, textbooks and even on the official Web site of the US drug enforcement administration. After the failed appetite suppression tests, popular belief has it that MDMA was hidden away until 1970 when it was rediscovered and engineered for hedonistic purposes by drug guru Alexander Shulgin.

Merck digs deep for truth

Merck Logo
Researchers went as far back as 1900 in their searchImage: AP

But according to a new study, which was reported on by the British daily The Guardian on Friday, Merck has taken the unparalleled step of investigating itself to find out the true story behind the creation of ecstasy. By delving deep into the company's records in its headquarters in Darmstadt, Merck researchers have found that the most popular story surrounding the controversial substances birth is a myth.

After trawling through reams and reams of old journals, reports, patient notes and other documents between 1900 and 1960, the Merck researchers discovered that the company did in fact create ecstasy in 1912 but as a potentially life-saving medicine that would help blood to clot.

At the turn of the century, Merck's main rival Bayer held the patent for the most effective blood clotting agent and Merck scientists were convinced that an even more effective medicine could be created through different combinations of chemicals. By developing a new drug without using the same combinations as those used by Bayer, Merck would avoid the potentially damaging fight over the patent.

During the research to create this new drug, Merck created MDMA. According to the Guardian article on the report, the Merck researchers found the original laboratory annual report for 1912 and discovered that the true father of ecstasy was the German scientist Anton Kollisch, the chemist in charge of the blood clot trials.

No human trials in 1912

Love Parade in Berlin, Raverin
Humans had to wait until they could test out the drugImage: AP

Again showing the appetite suppression story to be false, Merck's detectives also discovered that the new drug was not tried out on soldiers. "In clear contrast to what is usually claimed by the 'ecstasy' literature, MDMA was neither studied in animals nor humans at Merck around 1912," the official report, to be released in full in the coming edition of Addiction magazine, reportedly states.

Tests on animals did take place 15 years later when Max Oberlin, a chemist with Merck, stumbled over the original patent for MDMA in 1927. Oberlin began conducting tests with the drug, which he described as having a similar structure to adrenaline, but soon ended his research as the cost of the chemicals involved started to escalate.

Ecstasy didn't make it into the human system until the early 1950s when the US Air Force conducted secret tests with MDMA and other drugs. Again a myth developed around MDMA, with speculation that the military were testing the drug for use in everything from truth serum to chemical weapons.

The investigation into Merck's research with ecstasy suggests that the first human tests carried out by the German firm took place in 1959.

Ecstasy hits the streets

Merck in Darmstadt Forschung
A scientist at Merck -- the unlikely birthplace of EImage: AP/Merck

MDMA was no longer a secret at this point and the first official recipe for ecstasy appeared in a Polish scientific journal in 1960, and ten years later the first seizure of ecstasy tablets was reported in Chicago.

The drug then made it into the mainstream in the late 1970s after Shulgin, a former scientist with the chemical company Dow, synthesized the drug and later tested it on himself in the first recorded human trials.

Shulgin became a fan and soon his exhortations in favor of the drug brought ecstasy to the attention of a wider audience. Because of this, he is widely credited as the "godfather" of ecstasy.

However, the Merck report makes clear that ecstasy was in fact created by a little known German chemist who died four years after he discovered it and had no idea what a lasting legacy his failed blood-clotting agent would have.