Toxic Fungi of Western North America

by Thomas J. Duffy, MD

The "New World" history of psilocybin containing mushrooms

This group of fungi is interesting as they played an important role in some Mexican and South American religions. These rites were suppressed so vigorously by the Spanish Christians that a prominent botanist, William Safford, proclaimed in 1915 that only peyote cactus buttons were used. (158) R.J. Weitlaner rediscovered them in the state of Oaxaca in 1936. (159) Richard Schultes followed up on this finding and placed some species in the Harvard herbarium. (159) Gordon Wasson, a former New York banker and self-trained ethnomycologist, studied them in 1953 with the aid of the French mycologist, Roger Heim, and publicized their use in shamanic ceremonies. (160) Wasson not only reported these ceremonies and took part in them, but also recorded four cassette tapes of the religious rite as performed by the shaman, Maria Sabina. (161)

Dr. Rolf Singer, a world expert on tropical and subtropical fungi, also headed for the Mexican state of Oaxaca where Gordon Wasson and Roger Heim had found most of the halluinogenic species. Gordon Wasson, just prior to the second Aspen Conference on mushrooms, recounted for the participants a rather colorful story of Dr. Singer "stalking" Gordon and Valentina Wasson's party in Mexico and finally the Singer/Wasson meeting in a hut where both parties had sought protection from heavy rains. (162) Given Dr. Singer's extensive travels and expertise (and rather less flamboyance), one must discount some of this story. However, R. Gordon Wasson's account provides some of the background for further events and there may have been other observers in the rain forest.

A few years later Roger Heim published in French a full description of what he intended to name Psilocybe wassonii (Heim). Gordon and Valentina Wasson first collected this species in 1955. Their colleague, the mycologist Roger Heim, had first described it provisionally as Psilocybe mexicana var. brevispora in 1956. The following year he recognized this as a new species and he re-described the species (without the Latin diagnosis) for a report to the French Academy of Sciences. (163) Dr. Heims’ formal description and Latin diagnosis was not published until the Mycologia issue of 4/29/58, 25 days after Rolf Singer and Alexander Smith named that Psilocybe species Psilocybe muliercula in the same journal's preceding issue. The correct name, therefore, is Psylocybe muliercula Singer and Smith. Roger Heim and others threw a few uncomplimentary darts at the editorial board of Mycologia for what they saw as favoritism, but then the rivalries seemed to settle down.

Twenty years later, distressed by a lot of non-scientific babble about “magic mushrooms”, Dr. Smith wrote for Mycologia an article entitled Comments on hallucinogenic agarics and the hallucinations of those who study them. (164) This brief article faulted, for example, a footnote in Jonathon Ott’s Hallucinogenic Plants of North America where the latter states that Gordon Wasson discovered the Mexican mushroom cults for the English-speaking world, although at the same time citing Schultes’ prior work. Dr. Smith also noted that, in another article, Jonathan Ott considered Psilocybe subaeruginascens and Psilocybe aeruginascens to be the same species. Dr. Smith retorted that the surface of the cap and other features of these two taxa were not the same. In the 4th edition of his "Agaricales", Dr. Singer, like Dr. Smith, considers these two species to be different. (126)

Jonathon Ott then demanded a nine-page response in Mycologia. The editorial board of Mycologia accepted the first 2½ pages, but not the full text. The complete text was later published as “Mr. Jonathan Ott’s Rejoinder to Dr. Alexander H. Smith” as part of the Botanical Museum of Harvard University's series #6 in Ethnomycological studies. In this response to Dr. Smith, the mycological competition of the various workers on the genus Psilocybe was re-hashed all the way back to 1952, when the Wassons first went to Mexico.

The whole episode has an air of black humor about it that is worthy of a movie script. In studying what actually happened, Jonathon Ott wondered if the CIA (who had studied LSD) had also looked at hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms. Using the new Freedom of Information Act, he discovered that the CIA had wasted some of the taxpayer’s money by putting the Wassons, Roger Heim, Rolf Singer and Alexander Smith under surveillance for a period of time. Were some of the "stalkers" CIA personnel burning our hard earned dollars?