R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986)


R. Gordon Wasson (1898-1986) was an international banker, amateur mycologist, and author. He studied at the Columbia School of Journalism and at the London School of Economics.In 1926 RGW married Valentina Pavlovna Guercken (TW), a pediatrician. 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.

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.

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. This work stirred controversy among Vedic scholars. 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.

The R. Gordon Wasson Archives contain correspondence (original and carbon copies), notes, memoranda, lists, notebooks, diaries, translations, drafts, typescripts, proofs, illustrations, maps, charts, stamps, artifacts, original art work, film, audio tapes, video tapes, photographs, negatives, slides, and mounted exhibit materials relating to Tina and Gordon Wasson's ethnomycological research as well as to RGW's literary and political interests.

Thomas Riedlinger edited the RGW festschrift, The Sacred Mushroom Seeker: Essays for R. Gordon Wasson (1990). Although a few letters are dated prior to 1945, including copies of notes written by RGW in 1908, the bulk of the Wasson Papers range from 1945 to 1986. The Papers contain approximately 20,300 letters, 800 photographs, 3,300 slides, 200 artifacts, and over 2,800 items (papers, notes, lists, clippings, illustrations, maps, charts, etc.).

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.

Last Updated November 2002
Copyright 2002 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College