Look before you tweak: a history of amphetamine

I’ve just found a fascinating article in the American Journal of Public Health on ‘America’s First Amphetamine Epidemic’ and how it compares to the current boom in meth and Ritalin use.

The first amphetamine epidemic ran from 1929–1971 and was largely based on easily available over-the-counter speed in the form of ‘pep pills’, widely abused decongestant inhalers and amphetamine-based ‘anti-depressants’.

The idea of giving speed to depressed people seems quite amazing now, especially considering its tendency to cause anxiety, addition and psychosis in the doses prescribed at the time, but it was widely promoted for this purpose.

The following is a 1945 advert for Benzedrine showing a gentleman who has just been treated for depression and is now a proud and dynamic member of society. Thanks pharmaceutical grade crank!


As an aside, when patients complained about the agitation associated with amphetamine treatment, the drug companies brought out new medications which were speed mixed with barbituates, a class of sedatives.

Not mentioned by the article is the fact that one particular brand of this upper-downer mix called Dexamyl has had a remarkable effect on history – but you’ll have to check the Wikipedia page for the details.

As it happens America is in the midst of another phase of massive stimulant popularity – in the form of street methamphetamine and prescribed Ritalin. In fact, use is at virtually the same levels as when you could buy speed over-the-counter.

By the way, the author of the article also wrote the excellent book On Speed if you want a more in-depth look at the history of the drug.

Link to article in American Journal of Public Health (via @medskep)

6 thoughts on “Look before you tweak: a history of amphetamine”

  1. Reblogged this on Beyond Meds and commented:
    Those of us who’ve been on med merry-go-rounds know that this sort of mix and matching of stimulants and sedatives continues to happen today. If one drug makes you drowsy, another will make you perk-up, sort of rational. No need to ever consider going off anything! Just add something to mitigate the side effect of the last drug. I found it amusing (and disturbing) that this article is written with the suggestion that such heinous care doesn’t continue today. Med cocktails (of all combos) are all about this sort of house of cards.

  2. Didn’t Nietzsche get into the spiral of stimulant-sedative-stimulant-sedative (with what was available then)?

  3. People selling meth to addicts is, in my mind at least, the perfect example of how profiteering is an evil mentality. Kinda sucks how it’s shared by practically everyone in the modern world.

  4. My mother was put on speed for one week in the 1960s by a doctor who prescribed it as a diet pill. I remember that as the only happy week in my childhood because she had so much energy that she could work all day & clean all night & with a clean house, she didn’t yell at us. My dad made her stop taking it because he said that anything that changed someone’s personality that much overnight couldn’t be good for her.

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