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On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine

by Nicholas Rasmussen New York University Press
Pub Date:
Pbk 352 pages
AU$54.99 NZ$59.12
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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 soldiers 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, they are still speed at their core. And some of our most popular recreational drugs - including the supposedly “mellow” drug, Ecstasy - are also amphetamines. Whether we want to admit it or not, writes Rasmussen, we are still a nation on speed.

1 The New Sensation
2 Benzedrine: The Making of a Modern Medicine 
3 Speed and Total War 
4 Bootleggers, Beatniks, and Benzedrine Benders 
5 A Bromide for the Atomic Age 
6 Amphetamine and the Go-Go Years
7 Amphetamine’s Decline: From Mental Medicine to Social Disease
8 Fast Forward: Still on Speed, 1971 to Today 
Conclusion: The Lessons of History 
List of Archival Sources 
About the Author 

'Rasmussen blends science, medical history, and social history with fresh archival research. He fills the narrative with telling details and cultural insights. . . . This is a superb book.' - Journal of American History 'Brilliant.' - The Guardian 'On Speed, a fascinating history of the use and abuse of amphetamines, is full of hair-raising detail. . . . Even more compelling than the historical perspectivewhich allows for visits to Harlem Jazz clubs, the haunts of Greenwich Village beatniks and Andy Warhol's Factoryis Mr. Rasmussen's withering survey of the current scene, with speed, in the form of Ritalin and Adderall, prescribed to millions of American children who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, and millions more using it recreationally. Add a dash of theorizing about the medicalization of social problems, and you have a book that is, well, addictive.' - Adam Begley (aka Begley the Bookie), The New York Observer 'Fascinating and thoroughly researched. . . . The history of amphetamines over the past 70 years shows the iron fisted grasp the drug industry has had and continues to have over the medical industry.' - British Medical Journal 'It's hard to believe that amphetamine, a drug of questionable medical utility and extreme addiction hazard, was once considered among the 20th century's pharmaceutical triumphs, on a par with penicillin and insulin. How it attained and lost that status is the subject of this perceptive book.' - Washington Post Book World
Nicolas Rasmussen is Associate Professor in the School of History and Philosophy at the University of New South Wales