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Hidden Figures of Drug History: Melissa Cargill

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

This is the first time researching a post in my “Hidden Figures of Drug History” series has legitimately pissed me off. Usually, when I’m trying to learn more about someone like Joan Ganz Cooney, Lenore Kandel or Kitty McNeil, the fantastically-nicknamed “Babbling Bodhisattva,” my research takes me to enlightening places, where I can locate the influential impact these unacknowledged women have made on America’s long history with intoxicant use.

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Melissa Cargill

But over the past few days, as I tried to learn more about the mysterious Melissa Cargill, I became enormously upset about how overshadowed this talented chemist was by her larger-than-life partner, Augustus Owsley “Bear” Stanley III, the man “responsible” for the purest LSD in San Francisco in the 1960s, as well as the Grateful Dead’s famous “Wall of Sound.”

But was Owsley really the one manning the beakers? Or was it Cargill all along?

It’s hard to know, since Cargill is quiet–it seems she dropped off the radar years ago, or at least has no online or in-print presence. The most recent news about her I could find was a tweet from Heads News (“news and history for a psychedelic America”) from August 11, 2015, which apparently was Cargill’s 73rd birthday (which means that she’ll be 77 this summer, putting her birth year at 1942):

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But even this tweet feels misleading. Did Cargill “help teach” Owsley how to make LSD? Or was she the drug’s primary producer? Accounts differ, so let’s step back for a moment to see where a young Melissa Cargill was in 1964 and what she was doing.

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Owsley, left, with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead

The story begins with Owsley himself, a charismatic, manic Southerner from a distinguished Kentucky family who, after stints at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, and in the Air Force, brought himself, at age 29, to Berkeley in January 1964 after the break-up of his second marriage. He roomed with Charles Perry (the Rolling Stone writer and author of the psychedelic work The Haight-Ashbury: A History) and threw himself into a variety of activities, including college at UC Berkeley, a strict anti-vegetarian diet that included steak but no vegetables, and a growing interest in recreational drug use. Perry claimed that Owsley “had only been smoking grass for a couple of weeks” when he moved into Perry’s group house in Berkeley that year, but he soon became a “flagrant advocate for drugs.”

Owsley’s first interest, beyond marijuana, was speed: the methedrine fixation that would, in a few short years, transform psychedelic stoned Berkeley into an angry heroin- and amphetamine-filled nightmare. College didn’t last long for Owsley; it seemed he dropped out before the spring semester of 1964 came to a close. Neither did life in Perry’s group house, especially when Owsley’s prolific speed use (and 3:30am motorcycle rides) began bothering the other residents. But he did find two new interests while hanging around UC Berkeley’s labs in the wake of his student days: chemistry, particularly the synthesis of alkaloids, and Melissa Cargill, whom Perry patronizingly describes as “a cute little honeybee with tender intellectual eyes whom [Owsley] had met one day while doing some unauthorized messing around in the Cal chem labs.”

Cargill took to Owsley too. In Perry’s account, as well as in that of Robert Greenfield, author of the biography Bear: The Life and Times of August Owsley Stanley III, the talented chemist Cargill quickly upended her life for this man. Owsley invited her to coffee and, within three days, Cargill had abandoned her boyfriend (some say fiance) and thoughts of grad school to move in with Owsley in the “Green Factory,” a “sprawling green house” on the corner of Virginia and McGee Streets, which now, in a testament to the shifting nature of Berkeley, sits across the street from the Virginia-McGee Totland playground.

(And here’s one place where I started to get upset: everyone mentions that it only took three days for Cargill to drop her other relationship and plans for grad school for this manic speed freak. There are so few other accounts of her life, so few details about who she was or where she was from, but multiple notations that she fell for Owsley so quickly that it only took 72 hours for her to move in with him. And that, my friends, is how women become footnotes in history.)

At first, Cargill and Owsley made methedrine together, but amphetamines were illegal and the Green Factory got busted. According to Perry, Cargill saved Owsley from prison by “pouring a pound or so of methedrine down a Berkeley storm drain with the cheerful resignation she could always summon in a pinch.” (One wonders how the Pacific sea creatures felt about that?) Without any drugs in the house, the case against Owsley was thrown out, and he sued the state of California for the return of his lab equipment.

By this point Owsley and Cargill had tired of making speed anyway, so they disappeared to LA for a few months to set up another lab and work on something new. When they returned in April 1965, they had a new product: LSD, which was, conveniently, still legal at the time. Perry said he was skeptical, but after dropping a pill and turning “two-dimensional, fading into the wall of the World Womb,” he realized that Owsley and Cargill were right: “Godalmighty,” Perry wrote, “it was LSD.”

Here comes the part of the story where Owsley turns San Francisco on. He and Cargill made LSD in droppers, capsules and tablets. (The decorated blotter paper seems to have been a myth.) They sold it for no more than $2 a hit. And they soon refined the drug to the point where even LSD’s father, Albert Hofmann, was impressed. (According to Greenfield, Hofmann told Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow that Owsley and Cargill were the only ones who ever “got the chemistry correct.”)

Owsley also quickly transformed himself into an LSD impresario. He gave the drug to Ken Kesey, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and Ravi Shankar (who refused him), transforming San Francisco’s (and America’s) musical scene. He fashioned himself into a psychedelic drug baron, and made so much money that he kept a roll of $100 bills in his shoe. According to Perry, Owsley’s personal style was that of a maverick, pure and aggressive, and he reveled in his growing power. “[Timothy] Leary may be the king in this little chess game,” Owsley told Perry after a visit to Leary’s home in Milbrook, New York, “but what nobody realizes is I’m the rogue queen.”

The rogue queen, Owsley? Really? Again, I’m getting mad.

I’m angry because the real rogue queen in this picture is most likely Cargill, who seemed to be manning (womaning?) the beakers. After all, she was the one with the chemistry degree. Owsley had fixations and an interest to learn–a particularly enlightening scene comes from the memoir Owsley and Me, which describes Owsley sitting naked at the kitchen table, reading two chemistry books simultaneously, when Richard Alpert (soon to become Ram Dass) comes by for a visit–but he clearly needed someone to actually guide him in the lab. (Also, simultaneous reading is not the best way to study, bro.)

This is important because making LSD is not easy work. According to Perry, “working in an acid lab could take a week or ten days out of your life. LSD is an incredibly powerful substance. A single gram of the pure drug can supply 4,000 trips, and a little white speck you can barely see is enough to kill you… The problem with all these jobs–grinding, dispersing, capping and tabbing–is that LSD would always get on your skin and into your lungs, and inevitably you’d be stoned. Nothing seemed to prevent it, not even scuba suits.” Eventually, those working in Owsley and Cargill’s lab wouldn’t even take precautions: they’d work without safety gear until they couldn’t concentrate any longer, wait out the 8-10 hour acid trip in a “cooling-off chamber,” get some sleep and go to work again. After a week or so of around the clock labor, the batch would be done, and Owsley would pay each worker with a couple hundred tabs of acid apiece.

You really think a man who reads two books at a time naked could oversee an elaborate process where 99% pure LSD was being manufactured by a group of people who were tripping half the time? No, I think Cargill was the mastermind behind this. Owsley was the charismatic “Brilliant Man,” but it was Cargill who was managing everything behind the scenes.

According to a recent article on NPR, this wasn’t unusual. Women were the brains behind most of the psychedelic ’60s’ operations: they handled the money and merchandise for the Grateful Dead, raised the children the men fathered and later abandoned, and, clearly, ran LSD labs. They got the responsibility and none of the credit.

The author of the memoir Owsley and Me: My LSD Family was another hidden figure of drug history. Her name was Rhoney Gissen Stanley, and she was the third (human) part of the complicated relationship between Owsley, Cargill and LSD. Stanley (who took Owsley’s name after she bore his child, though the two never married) was a transfer student at Berkeley in 1965 who came to study literature, but quickly found herself in the magnetic orbit of Owsley. She moved in with Owsley and Cargill and began working in the lab. In her memoir, we have a chance to see exactly how influential Cargill was to the scientific process:

“Melissa took a washed beaker, squirted acetone on it, and held it up for inspection. “See how clean! Look, the beaker is dry. Every piece of glassware must have a final rinse of acetone.” “Oh, that acetone smells terrible. Anything that smells that bad can’t be good for you.” “Acetone smells bad but the flasks are glad,” Melissa responded. She blasted the beaker with compressed air. “This hastens the drying process.” She examined the glassware; if it were wet and there were any streaks or spots, it would come back for a do-over.”

Stanley has been more prolific than Owsley (who moved to Australia in the 1990s and died in a car crash in 2011) and Cargill. She’s also mentioned in the NPR article, lamenting her need to move away from the psychedelic scene in the 1970s. With a young son, she told NPR, “One of the reasons I left was that I wanted to forge my own path. Other women felt the same; we didn’t want to raise our kids around a drug-taking, rock and roll environment.” After she left Berkeley, she followed in her dentist father’s footsteps and became a holistic orthodontist in Woodstock, NY. Her son with Owsley, Starfinder Stanley, is now a veterinary acupuncturist in Sebastopol, CA. They seem to have landed on their feet, recovering from the psychedelic revolution that transformed Berkeley into a lively, swarming pool of art, creation and misogyny.

But I still wonder what happened to Cargill. How could the woman who truly created the psychedelic ’60s so easily disappear? And why do we worship at the alter of Owsley (the books about him! The memoirs! The celebratory documentaries!) without noting who was the real brains behind the operation? Can we legitimately say we understand this pivotal period in American history without giving credit where credit is actually due? Cargill has remained a hidden figure of drug history for too long, a “cute little honeybee” who should be rebranded as the brilliant chemist who brought systems and methods to turning America on. And much more should be known about her beyond the insipid amount of time it took for her to abandon one boyfriend and shack up with Owsley. This is a demeaning way of discussing a pivotal relationship that transformed the history of drug use in the United States. She deserves better. All the women of the 1960s do.

Anyway, Melissa Cargill, wherever you are, I hope you have a wonderful birthday this summer.



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