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R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986)



R. Gordon Wasson (RGW), an international banker, amateur mycologist, and author, was born on September 22, 1898 in Great Falls, Montana. His family moved east when RGW's father, an Episcopalian minister, accepted a new parish in Newark, New Jersey. RGW attended the Newark public schools; additionally, he completed three readings of the Bible between 1907-1912 and was tutored by his father in the history and correct usage of the English language. RGW's education as a traveller began intentionally when RGW and his older brother, Thomas Campbell Wasson (TCW), were sent unaccompanied on monthly visits to the museums in New York City before they were ten years old; during RGW's early teenage years, he and TCW visited major east coast cities. In 1914, after three years of high school, RGW joined TCW in England and together they travelled in Europe during the early war years. RGW enlisted as a private in 1917 and served in the American Expeditionary Forces in France as a radio operator.

After the war, RGW taught Spanish before enrolling in the Columbia School of Journalism. He received the first Pulitzer Traveling Scholarship awarded and studied at the London School of Economics. Returning to the United States, RGW taught English at Columbia University 1921-1922. He then became a reporter for the New Haven (CT) Register. He moved to New York in 1925 and became associate editor of the Current Opinion magazine; later, he wrote a signed financial column for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1928, he joined the staff of Guaranty Company in New York City, with extended assignments in Argentina and London. It was during the period 1929-1931 in Buenos Aires that RGW became acquainted with the writings of W.H. Hudson. In 1934, RGW joined the J.P. Morgan Company where he pioneered in banking public relations. He retired from his international banking duties at J.P. Morgan in 1963, having served as a vice-president from 1943.

RGW and Valentina Pavlovna Guercken (TW), a pediatrician, were married in a Russian church in London in 1926. On a delayed honeymoon in 1927 in the Catskill Mountains of New York, the Wassons' lifelong gathering of "references to mushrooms and toadstools in the folklore of the world" began when TW was overjoyed to discover mushrooms similar to those she had known in her native Russia. The Wassons went on to integrate mycological data with data from other fields: history, linguistics, comparative religion, mythology, art, and archaeology, exploring all aspects of mushrooms. They called their field of studies "ethnomycology" and coined the terms "mycophobe" and "mycophile" to separate the peoples of the world. Their investigations led to expeditions in Mexico beginning in 1953 to research the magico-religious use of mushrooms. In 1955, RGW and TW became the first outsiders to participate the Mazatec Indians' sacred mushroom rituals.

Professor Roger Heim, a mycologist and Director of the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, accompanied the Wassons on several of their expeditions as a scientist. Later, RGW and Heim became associated with Sandoz A.G., a pharmaceutical firm in Switzerland, supplying Sandoz with mushroom specimens.

In 1957, the Wassons' first book, which had begun as a cookbook by TW and the Wassons' Russian cook, Florence James, was published: Mushrooms Russia and History. Concurrently, a lengthy illustrated article by RGW in Life Magazine, May 13, 1957, on the Mexican mushroom veladas (sessions) with Maria Sabina gave rise to large numbers of individuals searching the wooded mountain regions of Mexico to discover for themselves the mushrooms with visionary powers. After TW's death in 1958, RGW continued to publish their Mexican mycological investigations: Maria Sabina and Her Mazatec Mushroom Velada (1974), accompanied by four long-playing records and the words of the all-night chants printed in Mazatec, Spanish, and English; and The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica (1980). Additionally, RGW was second author on Roger Heim's study of Psilocybe: Les Champignons Hallucinogenes du Mexique (1958) and Nouvelles Investigations sur les Champignons Hallucinogenes (1967). Two species of Psilocybe were named in honor of RGW and TW: Psilocybe Wassonii Heim and Psilocybe Wassonorum Guzman. RGW conducted yearly field trips to Mexico until 1962.

Upon retiring in 1963, RGW began Far Eastern field investigations relating to his thesis that the Indian soma plant was the mushroom Amanita muscaria (fly-agaric). He was in the Far East almost continuously from May 1963 to February 1966; his travels included New Zealand, New Guinea, Japan, China, India, Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Thailand, and Nepal. The results of his investigations were published in 1969 in Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, co-authored with Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty. This work stirred controversy among Vedic scholars. RGW also co-authored The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (1978) and Persephone's Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion (1986). The term "entheogen," was devised by RGW and his colleagues to replace the terms "hallucinogenic" or "psychedelic" or "drug" that had been used during the 1960's.

RGW lectured informally on his mycological research findings in addition to participating as an invited speaker at numerous symposia. His presentations included: the New York Academy of Sciences, January 1959; the Annual Lecture to the Mycological Society of America, Oklahoma, 1960; the Boston Mycological Club, April 1967; University of California at Los Angeles, 1970; and the International Congress of Orientalists, Australia, 1970. RGW's findings also appeared in scholarly publications such as the Ethnomycological Studies series of the Harvard University Botanical Museum.

RGW published four works that were non-mycological: That Gettysburg Address (1965), an essay critiquing the Gettysburg Address written by RGW's father, Edmund Atwill Wasson; The Hall Carbine Affair: An Essay in Historiography (1946), an appraisal of J.P. Morgan's role in the transaction; a paper with John P. Hughes in the American Journal of Philology: "The Etymology of Botargo," October 1947; and an article with Edwin Way Teale for the Saturday Review of Literature: "W.H. Hudson's Lost Years" (April 12, 1947).

A bibliophile who respected the Old World tradition of fine printing, RGW applied the same respect towards his own self-published monographs. His books were deluxe limited editions designed by the Italian master printer Giovanni Mardersteig and printed on handmade paper by the Stamperia Valdonega press in Verona, Italy.

The list of RGW's institutional and organizational affiliations includes: Research Fellow in Ethnopharmacology, Harvard University Botanical Museum; Board of Managers and Honorary Research Associate, New York Botanical Garden; New York City Century Club; Harvard University Visiting Committee to the Slavic Department; Fellow of the Linnean Society, London; Trustee, East European Fund; Trustee, Barnard College; Board of Directors, French Institute, New York City; Chairman, Committee for the Promotion of Advanced Slavic Studies; President, Society for Economic Botany; Honorary Curator of Botany, Milwaukee Public Museum. RGW also received the Addison Emery Verrill Medal from the Peabody Museum, Yale University in 1983 for Distinction in the Field of Natural History. The University of Bridgeport (CT) conferred on Wasson the degree of Sc.D. in 1974. RGW died December 23, 1986, survived by his two children, Peter Wasson and Mary (Masha) Wasson Britten, and three grandchildren. He had lived in Danbury, CT since 1961.


That Gettysburg Address (1965)
"R. Gordon Wasson - 1898-1986" by Donald F. Pfister, Mycologia, 80 (1), 1988
RGW autobiographical note; report of Christopher Brown
The Sacred Mushroom Seeker: Essays for R. Gordon Wasson (1990), edited by Thomas J. Riedlinger
Miscellaneous correspondence throughout the Wasson Papers.

Researchers may consult materials from the archives only by appointment or written request. Send inquiries to botref@oeb.harvard.edu. Please allow 2-3 business days for the processing of written and e-mailed requests.

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