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

Some drugs combined amphetamine with barbiturates to control both mood and weight. The ad above is from 1963.

Some drugs combined amphetamine with barbiturates to control both mood and weight. The ad above is from 1963. (College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

The earliest ads appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, helpfully defining “The Patient with Mild Depression.” Symptoms included

1) apathy, discouragement, and undue pessimism; 2) subjective difficulty in thinking, in concentrating, and in initiating and accomplishing usual tasks; 3) subjective feelings of weakness and exhaustion;  and 4) hypochondria (undue preoccupation with vague somatic complaints, such as palpitation or gastrointestinal disorders that may have no organic basis).

Below this list the company placed a small black-and-white photo of its “Benzedrine Sulfate Tablets,” recommended for their “striking effect upon mood,” such as “a sense of increased energy, mental alertness, and capacity for work.” Aimed at doctors, the ad emphasizes the patient’s subjective feelings of ill health in expansive ways. “If taken seriously,” Nicolas Rasmussen notes in On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine, “this last criterion would hugely increase the number of diagnosed mild depressions to include large numbers of patients in general practice: a third or more of patient visits to the family doctor were (and still are) just like this, complaints lacking an apparent ‘organic basis.’”

This potential for overprescribing appears obvious in hindsight. It may also have occurred from the beginning: in 1938, the first full year of advertising, sales jumped from $95,000 to $175,000. The next year, thanks in part to more ads targeting depression, that number nearly doubled, to $300,000. Buoyed by studies carried out by supportive researchers, amphetamine gained a reputation for safety and effectiveness. “One of the fundamental drugs in medicine,” SKF’s advertising declared, with physicians and the public inclined to agree. Benzedrine Sulfate—the first prescription drug for treating “discouragement”—was on the way to medical stardom.

From Medicine to Disease

Almost from its beginning, though, amphetamine was ripe for nonmedicinal use. From its introduction in 1931 to the end of 1938 SKF claimed to have shipped over 10 million Benzedrine inhalers. Others quickly realized the opportunity to sell inhalers containing similar, unpatented stimulants—such as methamphetamine or mephentermine, a cardiac stimulant. And some users quickly realized the ease with which they could crack open inhalers to consume the drugs inside. Until 1959, when the Food and Drug Administration banned them, these inhalers offered a cheap, legal high, inducting Beatnik luminaries like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg into the habit.

Kerouac, especially, claimed the amphetamine buzz improved his writing by shearing away his conventional view of the world. He likened it to jazz, the way it produced in him a spontaneous, improvised, propulsive prose. He was so enamored of the drug’s effect on his mind that he used it until his hairline receded and his legs swelled up due to thrombophlebitis. (It’s unlikely that amphetamine directly caused the ailments, but rather Kerouac’s tendency to use it intensely, taking high doses and writing at his desk for hours without food or sleep.) Ginsberg had a similar perspective, using Benzedrine to explore his consciousness. For them Alles’s noted “feeling of well being” had profound, almost mystical importance. Amphetamine was not just a medicine—to return the ill to sprightly good health—but an enhancement, a way to make average people better.

The inhaler method, though, appealed to only a minority of recreational amphetamine users. Alles’s Benzedrine Sulfate pills had already come to market, offered in a more precise dosage while being nearly as easy to procure. In 1936 researchers at the University of Minnesota had given pills to student volunteers in order to evaluate any psychological effects. The participants realized they could use it to stay awake and study harder; in fact, SKF had considered marketing the drug as a study aid. But when articles about student misuse appeared in Time and the New York Times in early 1937, the company quickly responded to quash the negative publicity. Amphetamine was never officially marketed as a study or concentration aid (its effects as such are dubious), but its off-label use continued. Like the later Beatniks, the student self-medicators used amphetamine to “enhance” their capacities.

But the greatest experiment in amphetamine-based enhancement came in World War II. In 1939 the Blitzkrieg’s success was attributed partly to the use of Pervitin—methamphetamine—among German soldiers. By mid-1940 the British and American militaries had begun their own respective chemical investigations. Both eventually settled on Benzedrine to combat fatigue and boost morale. The drug proved especially popular among pilots and air crews, who often had to fly long, grueling bombing raids late into the night. By 1943 a package of Benzedrine pills had its place in the emergency kit of every American bomber. Two years later a survey of European-theater fighter pilots who frequently flew long missions showed that around 15 percent frequently used Benzedrine.

SKF’s advertising dutifully reported its new use among the country’s fighting force. “For men in combat, when the going gets tough,” one ad began, Benzedrine Sulfate tablets would save lives through “sustaining their mental efficiency by overcoming the symptoms of fatigue.” Here, too, the evidence had proven inconclusive: the pills had slight to no effect on cognitive capabilities, but the “feel-good” effect often made users overestimate their own capabilities. At the same time, the nervous-system stimulation kept soldiers awake past the point of exhaustion, though often with dubious consequences, including hallucinations and paranoia, well-known effects of sleep deprivation and amphetamine use.