1931-1970 – The DMT Molecule Is Synthesized and Its Psychoactive Effects on Humans are Documented
Today known for its role in making the shamanic ayahuasca brew of the Amazon deliver vivid psychedelic visions in the mind of those who drink it, the DMT molecule exists naturally in many plants and animals around the world. But this was only learned in recent decades. In 1931, the DMT molecule was first chemically synthesized by German chemist Richard Helmuth Fredrick Manske. Its discovery as a natural product has been attributed to Brazilian chemist and microbiologist Oswaldo Gonçalves de Lima, who, in 1946, extracted the DMT molecule from Mimosa tenuiflora. In later scrutiny, however, Jonathan Ott deemed that the compound Gonçalves de Lima had extracted and named “nigerine” does not correspond exactly to DMT due to being “tainted” with an atom of oxygen.
In 1955 the DMT molecule was extracted and formally identified by a team of American chemists led by Evan Horning in seeds and pods of Yopo (Anadenathera peregrina), a plant used as a psychedelic snuff by indigenous groups in Colombia, Brazil, and Venezuela.
DMT has since been identified in hundreds of plant species, most notably in: herbs used as ayahuasca admixtures (Psychotria viridis, Diplopterys cabrerana, and Psychotria carthaginensis); in the root bark of Mimosa tenuiflora, which is used for brewing the Brazilian version of ayahuasca called vinho da jurema; in various species of Acacias; in various Virola species, used for making snuffs in the Orinoco basin in the Amazon (DMT effects were used by indigenous groups for social rituals and hunting); and even in commonplace citrus plants. It has also been isolated from a Gorgonian coral, brains of rats, lungs and brains of rabbits, and human cerebrospinal fluid, lung tissue, kidney tissue, blood, urine, and feces.
In 1956, the first scientific reports of DMT effects on humans came from Stephen Szára, Hungarian chemist and psychiatrist, who had injected an extract from Mimosa hostilis into his own muscle and performed and published further research using volunteers.
In 1957, American chemists Francis Hochstein and Anita Paradies identified DMT in an “aqueous extract” of leaves of a plant they named Prestonia amazonicum and described as “commonly mixed” with B. caapi (likely P. viridis as the sample originated from the Iquitos area in Peru, where this shrub is the most common DMT admixture).
In 1959, Gonçalves de Lima provided American chemists a sample of the root of Mimosa tenuiflora, and it was formally confirmed that the oxygen atom in the compound he had isolated in 1946 was erroneously identified and that the plant had indeed contained the DMT molecule.
In 1969, Corothie and Nakano extracted DMT from the bark of Virola sebifera. During this period, before the United Nations convention on psychotropic substances in 1971, which mostly outlawed research of psychedelics, the chemistry of the DMT molecule and DMT effects on the mind and body were broadly studied.
The rapid expansion in popularity of the ayahuasca brew has meant DMT is being consumed at an increasing rate by spiritual seekers and patients. The brew is typically made of two plants, one which contains DMT, and the other (ayahuasca vine) which allows the DMT to enter the blood through the gut. But the ayahuasca vine is not simply a support service for the delivery of DMT into our brains. It also has special medicinal and psychoactive properties, which were first isolated by scientists in 1957. The vine is known by many indigenous groups as being the paramount spirit or healer, and the DMT as one of many admixture plant ingredients that can be added to the vine brew.
In the 1990s, a psychiatrist named Rick Strassman undertook revolutionary studies on DMT’s biological and psychological effects at the University of New Mexico (US). His famous book DMT: The Spirit Molecule details his experiments of giving 60 people 400 doses of DMT in a research environment. The spawned a generation of researchers and seekers partly because of a popular documentary about the book that was released in 2019.
St. John, G. (2015). Mystery Schools in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT. Berkeley: Evolver Editions