On Speed

From Benzedrine to Adderall

352 pages

November, 2009

ISBN: 9780814776391



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Nicolas Rasmussen is Associate Professor in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of Picture Control: The Electron Microscope and the Transformation of Biology in America, 1940-1960.

All books by Nicolas Rasmussen

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.


  • "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 perspective—which allows for visits to Harlem Jazz clubs, the haunts of Greenwich Village beatniks and Andy Warhol’s Factory—is 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

  • "Rasmussen . . . examines amphetamine as a case study on the place drugs occupy in our culture and our fantasies (of miracle cures and elixirs). . . . At the book's core is an outstanding chapter, Bootleggers, Beatniks and Benzedrine Benders, describing how Benzedrine inhalers, available without a prescription, could be cracked open for a totally new kind of amphetamine experience, exerting a potent influence on music and literature, from Charlie Parker to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "Rasmussen documents America’s eighty year love affair with amphetamine and its various permutations. Monumental in scope and research, the book traces the history of this seductive drug’s uses for a myriad of illnesses when the true sickness may be inherent to our unique American society. Given our current extraordinary use of this drug, On Speed is an urgent and necessary read."

    —Lawrence Diller, M.D., author of Running on Ritalin

  • "For historians of medicine, this book provides a new, empirically rich study of a major drug class and joins a growing body of recent work on pharmaceutical history; for historians more generally, it offers an excellent entrée to broader themes in twentieth century therapeutics; and for policy makers, industry insiders, and others, it is a lively yet insightfully critical text whose pages turn quickly even without benefit of the drug in question."

    American Historical Review

  • "Rasmussen deserves applause for providing a well-considered history and critique of amphetamine’s development and role in contemporary medicine."

    Nature Medicine