Fast Times: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Amphetamine

A 1944 ad depicts various Benzedrine users, including a soldier. Amphetamine use increased dramatically during World War II; the military routinely distributed Benzedrine Sulfate pills to pilots flying long missions.

A 1944 ad depicts various Benzedrine users, including a soldier. Amphetamine use increased dramatically during World War II; the military routinely distributed Benzedrine Sulfate pills to pilots flying long missions. (College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

Gordon Alles thought he was testing a new asthma medicine. The Los Angeles chemist had tried without success to improve on ephedrine, the decongestant and bronchodilator that had in recent years become a blockbuster asthma, cold, and allergy treatment for drug maker Eli Lilly. Alles began to focus on a compound he called beta-phenyl-isopropylamine. He didn’t know it at the time, but the drug had been first synthesized in 1887 by Romanian chemist Lazar Edeleanu. For over 40 years chemists had considered it pharmaceutically valueless, but Alles was about to prove them wrong, discovering what became the first psychoactive prescription drug—and igniting a decades-long controversy.

On June 3, 1929, a doctor injected 50 milligrams of amphetamine into Alles’s body. In the early days of scientific drug discovery researchers routinely experimented on themselves. In addition to feeling they had a moral duty to future test subjects, they believed their training and familiarity with a compound made them the best observers of its effects. In this case Alles had tested his compound on guinea pigs, though he couldn’t know exactly what to expect when he became his own guinea pig. He took what he estimated was a nonlethal dose—five times greater than later recommendations—and prepared himself. If amphetamine worked as he hoped, he’d have a lucrative, patent-protected drug that could go head-to-head with ephedrine.

Seven minutes later he sniffed: his nose was dry and clear. His blood pressure climbed dramatically. After 17 minutes he noted heart palpitations but also a “feeling of well being.” He grew chatty and at a dinner party that night considered himself unusually witty. Some eight hours after taking the drug his blood pressure had nearly returned to normal. Still, he recorded, “Rather sleepless night. Mind seemed to run from one subject to another.”

Similar effects characterize a group of drugs now known as amphetamines, as Alles later named them. Bolstered by apparent success, he began testing with actual patients. He gave an asthma sufferer 20 milligrams by mouth; two hours later she was still wheezing, despite feelings of euphoria. The next week a 50-milligram shot relieved her asthma attack but left her nauseated and headache-stricken. As an asthma treatment, the chemical seemed to have no future.

But Alles saw potential in a euphoria-producing stimulant—even one lacking any obvious medical application. He began sharing the drug with a small, informal group of doctors and researchers for experimental use. It might help keep narcoleptics awake. Perhaps it could be used as a heart stimulant or for relief from menstrual pain. In the meantime Alles protected his intellectual property: a 1932 U.S. patent declared him the inventor of amphetamine sulfate and amphetamine hydrochloride. It also recognized him as the discoverer of their medicinal value, a common second claim in the realm of drug law. If for some reason Alles couldn’t defend his claim to have invented the compounds (Edeleanu had preceded him), he still had a patented claim on their use as medicine.   

Even with his patent in hand developing the drug would require greater resources than Alles possessed. He approached Philadelphia pharmaceutical firm Smith, Kline, and French (SKF) about a partnership. The company already produced one amphetamine product, the Benzedrine inhaler, patented almost simultaneously with Alles’s compounds. The large, established company was still getting its bearings in the new era of drug development and needed young scientists like Alles. They agreed to royalty payments, a salary, and lab space. SKF would get a first look at anything the chemist produced. In exchange SKF would devote its considerable marketing muscle to transforming amphetamine from an experimental compound into a “wonder drug.”