We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

On Speed

The Many Lives of Amphetamine

Nicolas Rasmussen

Publication Year: 2008

Life in the Fast Lane: The author on the CHE

Uppers. Crank. Bennies. Dexies. Greenies. Black Beauties. Purple Hearts. Crystal. Ice. And, of course, Speed. Whatever their street names at the moment, amphetamines have been an insistent force in American life since they were marketed as the original antidepressants in the 1930s. On Speed tells the remarkable story of their rise, their fall, and their surprising resurgence. Along the way, it discusses the influence of pharmaceutical marketing on medicine, the evolving scientific understanding of how the human brain works, the role of drugs in maintaining the social order, and the centrality of pills in American life. Above all, however, this is a highly readable biography of a very popular drug. And it is a riveting story.

Incorporating extensive new research, On Speed describes the ups and downs (fittingly, there are mostly ups) in the history of amphetamines, and their remarkable pervasiveness. For example, at the same time that amphetamines were becoming part of the diet of many GIs in World War II, an amphetamine-abusing counterculture began to flourish among civilians. In the 1950s, psychiatrists and family doctors alike prescribed amphetamines for a wide variety of ailments, from mental disorders to obesity to emotional distress. By the late 1960s, speed had become a fixture in everyday life: up to ten percent of Americans were thought to be using amphetamines at least occasionally.

Although their use was regulated in the 1970s, it didn't take long for amphetamines to make a major comeback, with the discovery of Attention Deficit Disorder and the role that one drug in the amphetamine family—Ritalin—could play in treating it. Today’s most popular diet-assistance drugs differ little from the diet pills of years gone by, still speed at their core. And some of our most popular recreational drugs—including the "mellow" drug, Ecstasy—are also amphetamines. Whether we want to admit it or not, writes Rasmussen, we’re still a nation on speed.

Published by: NYU Press


pdf iconDownload PDF

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
p. ix

This book benefited from so much help from so many people over so many years that it is hard to know where to begin to express my gratitude. I owe special thanks to those who have sacrificed their valuable time in commenting on drafts and excerpts, notably Jackie Biro, Mark Cortiula, Larry Diller, David Healy, Chris Kearney, Iain...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 1-5

Ours is an age accustomed to miracle drugs. We expect new triumphs of science that, in our lifetime, will eliminate mankind’s most ancient enemies: all the illnesses that bring pain, sorrow, frailty, and untimely death. We expect these triumphs, moreover, to come in pharmaceutical form. The most famous miracle drug remains...

read more

1. The New Sensation

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 6-24

On June 3, 1929, a twenty-seven-year-old chemist in Los Angeles took an injection of a mystery chemical he had recently created. Beyond an estimate of how much it would take to kill him, and the expectation that his blood pressure would rise—both derived from guinea pig tests—he had little idea what the injection would do. He...

read more

2. Benzedrine: The Making of a Modern Medicine

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 25-52

Alles had found a splendid partner to make his creation a blockbuster. Although Smith, Kline & French could not yet boast many scientifically impressive pharmaceuticals in its product line (Figure 8), the firm had the marketing skills to turn a mere chemical into a successful medicine. The period in which amphetamine...

read more

3. Speed and Total War [Includes Image Plates]

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 53-86

When the Germans attacked Poland in September 1939, they unleashed an entirely new form of warfare on the world called Blitzkrieg, or lightning war. It was all about speed and shock, about delivering the strongest, quickest blow and then covering lots of ground before the enemy could regroup. The soldiers who delivered the...

read more

4. Bootleggers, Beatniks, and Benzedrine Benders

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 87-112

Most drugs have multiple effects on the body; of these, only one or two may be medically useful. The others might still be valuable for scientific research—as well as for other quite unscientific purposes. The early nonmedical users of amphetamine experienced an especially wide range of effects from which they selected a few as interesting or...

read more

5. A Bromide for the Atomic Age [Includes Image Plates]

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 113-148

In the 1940s and 1950s the world of the American family doctor, where amphetamine found its largest market, differed little in essence from that of general practitioners a generation before. Contrary to romantic notions we might now have about the “good old days,” the average doctor has always been too busy. From the late...

read more

6. Amphetamine and the Go-Go Years

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 149-181

Historical accounts typically treat tranquilizers as beginning the widespread medication of everyday psychological distress. The drug industry’s interest in antidepressants supposedly came later.¹ Mistaken though this perspective certainly is, in overlooking the two previous decades during which amphetamine-based...

read more

7. Amphetamine’s Decline: From Mental Medicine to Social Disease

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 182-221

How was the 1960s amphetamine epidemic ever brought to an end? This question is critical if we wish to apply the lessons of history to the drug problems of today. Some of the events that finally led the American public to view amphetamines as a seductive monster, and to bring sufficient force to bear in controlling the drugs, were...

read more

8. Fast Forward: Still on Speed, 1971 to Today

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 222-254

Amphetamine and Methamphetamine passed through the complete life cycle between the mid-1930s, when they were first heralded as miracle drugs, and the mid-1970s, by which time both drugs were widely viewed as public enemies and their medical use diminished to a trickle. With declining medical consumption, street...

read more

Conclusion: The Lessons of History

pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 255-260

Although major changes in social structures and values may be needed if America’s craving for speed is ever to diminish, this is no reason to neglect the search for simpler, smaller-scale changes that might help mitigate the harms, both direct and indirect, of today’s heavy consumption of amphetamine-like drugs. And history does...


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 261-346

List of Archival Sources

pdf iconDownload PDF
p. 347


pdf iconDownload PDF
pp. 348-351

About the Author

pdf iconDownload PDF
p. 352

E-ISBN-13: 9780814777350
E-ISBN-10: 081477735X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814776018
Print-ISBN-10: 0814776019

Page Count: 400
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 232956890
MUSE Marc Record: Download for On Speed

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Amphetamine abuse -- United States -- History
  • Amphetamines -- United States -- History.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access