R. Gordon Wasson was an international banker, amateur mycologist, and author. He was born in Montana, raised in New Jersey, and served as a radio operator in the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. After the war Wasson studied at the Columbia School of Journalism and the London School of Economics.
Wasson taught English and worked as a journalist for various magazines before, in 1926, marrying Valentina Pavlovna Guercken, a Russian-born pediatrician. Valentina's Russian upbringing included a comfort with wild mushrooms in contrast to Wasson's innate fear and repulsion. They explored the issue and together coined the terms "mycophobe" and "mycophile".
This interest in mushrooms led Wasson to Mexico in 1953 where he sought evidence of hallucinogenic mushrooms and their use by native people. He eventually met Maria Sabina, a Mazatec curandera who initiated Wasson into the experience of psilocybin mushrooms. He wrote up his experience in a famous article in Life Magazine in 1957. Wasson is also credited with having collected the first herbarium sample of Salvia divinorum in 1962 during his travels in Mexico.
In 1963, Wasson began researching the identity of Indian soma, with the theory that it could be identified as the Amanita muscaria mushroom. He travelled widely for more than five years before publishing his controversial results in the book Soma in 1969. In 1973, Wasson -- along with Jonathan Ott, Carl Ruck, Danny Staples and Jeremy Bigwood -- coined the term "entheogen" to describe mind-altering plants or chemicals which can induce a divine experience.
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