In a startling parlallel to today’s opioid crisis, the drugs were liberally—and legally—prescribed despite little information on safety.
Susanna McBee walked into the office of a doctor she’d never met before, submitted to a three-minute physical, and walked out with hundreds of colorful amphetamine pills. Then she went to another—and another—and another. At every doctor’s office, she was prescribed diet pills containing the potent stimulant, sometimes handed to her by doctors before she’d even spoken a word. It was 1969, and the undercover journalist was about to blow the lid off of America’s addiction to speed.
Today, amphetamine and its derivatives, like phentermine and ephedrine, are tightly controlled substances. In McBee’s day, they were business as usual. She is credited with helping expose the magnitude of the United States’ amphetamine use—normalized during war, fueled by weight worries, and prescribed with almost reckless abandon until the 1970s.
McBee wrote her piece decades before the opioid epidemic that is now ravaging communities in the United States. But the rampant drug use she helped expose shares some chilling similarities with today’s crisis. Like opioids, amphetamine was touted as a groundbreaking discovery, then pushed by drug companies on doctors with relentless marketing until it was considered an everyday remedy. And like opioids, amphetamine was a hard habit for the nation to kick.
Doctoral student Lazar Edeleanu, a Romanian chemist, was the first to synthesize amphetamine in 1887, but Edealanu was more interested in oil than stimulants, and he abandoned his research, eventually discovering the modern method of refining crude oil. It took another 40 years for scientists to revisit the chemical. When they did, they discovered its potent physical effects.
It turns out that amphetamine is a pretty effective decongestant—when inhaled, nasal passages and lungs clear up. So in 1932, Smith, Kline & French started selling an inhaler they called Benzedrine. Unlike a modern asthma inhaler, Benzedrine inhalers didn’t rely on pressurized canisters filled with medication. Rather, they contained a cotton strip soaked in amphetamine oil.
You didn’t need a prescription to get a Benzedrine inhaler, and some patients soon realized that they prized the inhaler’s stimulant effects more than a clear nose. They started prying open the inhaler, taking out the cotton, and either eating or injecting the drug.
Meanwhile, scientists started studying amphetamine’s stimulant effects. By the mid 1930s, newly available Benzendrine salts were put in pills and prescribed for sleep disorders, depression and weight loss. As America geared up for war, the pills showed promise as a weapon, too.
Just days after the United States entered World War II, Northwestern University physiologist Andrew Ivy submitted a proposal that suggested the Office of Science Research and Development, a federal agency that conducted military medical research, test Benzedrine against other wakefulness aids. “In the the panicked months after the shock of Pearl Harbor,” explained health and labor historian Alan Derickson in the Journal of Social History, “there was both a great willingness to grasp at quick fixes and the resources available to pursue all options.”
Ivy immediately began testing Benzedrine tablets against methamphetamine—an amphetamine derivative rumored to have fueled the German Blitz against Britain—and caffeine. At first, Ivy’s tests showed that Benzedrine didn’t produce better results than either of them. Over time, though, he became more and more convinced that it was worth prescribing, despite test results that showed it was habit-forming and little evidence of its effects on judgment.
It’s not clear how Ivy went from skeptic to Benzedrine booster, but by 1942 the military had placed a large order for the pills. (Decades later, Ivy would be indicted, but not convicted, in connection with boosting a disproven cancer treatment called krebiozen.)
Soon, Benzedrine could be found on the battlefield. Hundreds of thousands of packets of 5mg pills were issued to soldiers by field medics, and airmen were allotted two Benzedrine inhalers per combat year.
The U.S. wasn’t the only country that researched or used stimulants during World War II. Meth—marketed to Germans as the “alertness aid” Pervitin and in other countries under other names—was the drug of choice for German soldiers and helped Japanese Kamikaze airmen prepare to carry out their suicide missions. The British military studied and used Benzedrine, too, and stimulants became as normal in battle as flak helmets and canteens.