History of Benzedrine

This article is about the socio-cultural aspects and history of the first amphetamine pharmaceutical. It is not to be confused with Benzedrex, Benzedrone, or Benzphetamine.
Benzedrine inhaler

Benzedrine is the trade name of the racemic mixture of amphetamine (dl-amphetamine). The drug was often referred to as "bennies" by users and in literature. It was marketed under this brand name in the United States by Smith, Kline & French in the form of inhalers, starting in 1933.[1] Benzedrine was used medically to enlarge nasal and bronchial passages until it was discontinued and replaced with compounds with weaker psychoactive properties (e.g., ephedrine, levomethamphetamine, and propylhexedrine).

History and culture

While the drug was initially used for medical purposes, as a bronchodilator, early users of the Benzedrine inhaler discovered it had a euphoric stimulant effect, resulting in its being one of the earliest synthetic stimulants to be widely used for recreational (i.e., nonmedical) purposes. Even though this drug was intended for inhalation, some people used Benzedrine recreationally by cracking the container open and swallowing the paper strip inside, which was covered in Benzedrine. The strips were often rolled into small balls and swallowed, or taken with coffee or alcohol. Because of the stimulant side effect, physicians discovered amphetamine could also be used to treat narcolepsy. This led to the production of Benzedrine in tablet form. Benzedrine was also used by doctors to perk up lethargic patients before breakfast.[2]

In 1937, the effects of Benzedrine, and thus stimulant use, was studied in children with behavior and neurological disorders.[3]

In the 1940s and 1950s, reports began to emerge about the recreational use of Benzedrine inhalers, and in 1949, doctors began to move away from prescribing Benzedrine as a bronchodilator and appetite suppressant. In 1959, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made it a prescription drug. Benzedrine and derived amphetamines were used as a stimulant for armed forces during World War II and the Vietnam War.[4][5] Benzedrine was commonly referenced in Beatnik culture and writings. It was referenced in the works of famous Beats, including Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road, William S. Burroughs's novel Junky, and Allen Ginsberg's memoir poem "Howl". Benzedrine is also mentioned in John Rechy's novel City of Night and several novels by Jacqueline Susann, in particular The Love Machine in which main character Robin Stone treats the drug as a staple of "a well balanced diet" inclusive of red meat and cigarettes.[6]

When amphetamine became a controlled substance, it was replaced by propylhexedrine. Propylhexedrine was also manufactured by Smith, Kline and French and was marketed under the name Benzedrex. The Benzedrex inhaler is still available today, but is now manufactured by B.F. Ascher & Company, inc.[7] In certain countries (e.g., the United States), levomethamphetamine is used as the active ingredient in certain brands of inhalers, such as Vicks VapoInhaler, which are sold over-the-counter.

References in Movies & TV

The Man in the High Castle

In the first episode of season one, Joe Blake is handed a package containing Benzedrine to aid him in making the journey from New York City to Cannon City.


The screenplay writer Dalton Trumbo was known to be dependent upon Benzedrine,[8] which he often combined with hard liquor, as portrayed in the 2015 film Trumbo.


In a Netflix original directed by Madonna, King Edward the VIII livens up his sleeping guests with a Benzedrine pill added to every glass of champagne and announces "It's time to wake these people up" to Wallis Simpson. The party transforms a sleep cinema display of Charlie Chaplin to a raucous party with laughter and dancing and a much greater sense of euphoria.

References in literature

Ian Fleming's James Bond references

In the series of books by Ian Fleming, the character James Bond repeatedly makes use of Benzedrine in times of peak stress and typically during the climax of various books. Actually, Ian Fleming first makes reference to Benzedrine in his first book Casino Royale written in 1953. Le Chiffre, is the paymaster of the "Syndicat des Ouvriers d'Alsace" (French for "Alsatian Workmen's Union"), a SMERSH-controlled trade union. In the very early scenes, Le Chiffre is noted to make use of a Benzedrine inhaler as he plays baccarat. This detail is not lost in the 2006 film remake of the same name with 'Le Chiffre' played by Danish actor, Mads Mikkelsen, also uses an inhaler. Benzedrine, however, was now considered to be too 'druggy' so a platinum cased Salbutamol inhaler makes do instead. The character of James Bond's first use of Benzedrine is in the form of tablets in the book Live and Let Die [9] "...He still felt perfectly fresh and the elation and clarity of mind produced by the Benzedrine were still with him..." This scene occurs as James Bond is maneuvering through an underwater coral reef toward the island of Surprise off the coast of Jamaica. The next instance of James Bond using Benzedrine is in Moonraker where early in the book he uses a champagne and Benzedrine mixed drink (to which he says "Never Again.") to stay alert to beat the villain Hugo Drax at a game of high-stakes contract bridge. Additionally, when James Bond is about to deal with two gangsters in The Spy Who Loved Me over a long night at the Dreamy Pines Motor Court, "...He took out two and when I gave him the coffee he swallowed them down. 'Benzedrine.' That'll keep me awake for tonight." says Bond.[10]

Even Cowgirls Get The Blues by Tom Robbins

"It was a cloudless night with only moderate smog. A furry northeaster was blowing in over Coney Island and Brooklyn, bringing to the upper East Side a teasing sniff of the ocean. Trembling with energy, unable to contain itself, Manhattan was popping wheelies beneath her. In every direction, her tired eyes saw flashing lights, lights that caromed off the horizons and joined with the stars in the sky. The city seemed to be inhaling Benzedrine and exhaling light; a neon-lunged Buddha chanting and vibrating in a temple of filth."[11]

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

In Sylvia Plath's only novel, The Bell Jar, the title character Esther Greenwood dreams up a list of unrealistic expectations for herself in the midst of her depression. "I thought I would spend the summer reading Finnegans Wake and writing my thesis. Then I would be way ahead when college started at the end of September, and able to enjoy my last year, instead of swotting away with no makeup and stringy hair, on a diet of coffee and Benzedrine, the way most of the seniors taking honors did, until they finish their thesis." [12]

Irvine Welsh's Filth

In Irvine Welsh's 1998 novel titled Filth, the protagonist, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is offered Benzedrines by his colleague Ray Lennox, who claims that "They keep you going when you are a bit fucked."[13]

References in music

Song in You Were Never Lovelier, movie 1942

"On the Beam" was written by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer for the film You Were Never Lovelier, 1942, but was not included in the film's final release.[14] On the Beam contains Mercer's lyrics,
"I'm like the B-19/
Loaded with benzedrine/
When I come on the scene/
I bust a hole in the sky."[15]
It was composed for Fred Astaire and his rendition of the song was issued on the Decca 78 rpm record as the B side to his singing of the main title song.

Harry "The Hipster" Gibson

The jazz pianist, singer and songwriter Harry Gibson wrote a song called "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine" in 1947.

Tom Lehrer

Benzedrine appears in the song "Bright College Days" by the satirical songwriter Tom Lehrer. It appeared on the album More of Tom Lehrer, which was released in 1959.
"To the beer and benzedrine
To the way that the dean
Tried so hard to be pals with us all."

Fall Out Boy

American rock band Fall Out Boy's fourth studio album Folie à Deux contains a song called "20 Dollar Nose Bleed" which is about the recreational use of benzedrine. The song's chorus contains the lyrics "give me a pen / call me Mr. Benzedrine / but don't let the doctor in / I wanna blow off steam." Benzedrine is referenced once again in the music video of the album's second single, "America's Suitehearts." Each of the band members is given a name referencing one of the album's songs, and lead singer Patrick Stump's is Dr. Benzedrine.

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen

The drug is referred to by the slang name "Benny" in the 1972 song, "I Took Three Bennies and My Semi Truck Won't Start", by the American country-rock band Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. The song makes reference to the alleged tendency for long-distance truck drivers to use amphetamines and other stimulants to make long-distance deliveries on a tight schedule.[16]

Bud Brewer/Gary Stewart

RCA country music performers Bud Brewer and Gary Stewart both released versions of the song "Caffeine, Nicotine, Benzedrine (and Wish Me Luck)" in 1975. Brewer's version appears on his album "Big Bertha, The Truck Driving Queen" while Stewart's rendition appears on his album "You're Not The Woman You Used To Be." The song, written by Bill Hayes, Betty Mackey and Bill Howard, is sung from the perspective of a truck driver struggling to stay awake on the road. Jerry Reed, also a country artist signed to RCA, covered the song on his 1980 album "Texas Bound and Flyin'.

R.E.M. - What's the Frequency, Kenneth?

R.E.M. released the song "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" in 1994 which uses the term in the opening line "'What's the frequency, Kenneth?' is your Benzedrine, uh-huh." The song was written in reflection of the 1986 incident in which CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather was beaten on the streets of New York City by a then-unknown assailant, William Tager. The year the song was released by R.E.M. (1994), Tager shot and murdered NBC stagehand Campbell Montgomery outside of the stage of the Today Show. Dan Rather didn't identify Tager until 1997.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Wet Sand

The drug's name is mentioned in a verse of the song Wet Sand by Red Hot Chili Peppers. It appeared on the album Stadium Arcadium.
"The travesties that we have seen
are treating me like Benzedrine."

See also


  1. "Benzedrine".
  2. Cullen, Pamela V. A Stranger in Blood: The Case Files on Dr John Bodkin Adams, London, Elliott & Thompson, 2006, ISBN 1-904027-19-9. Suspected serial killer John Bodkin Adams was using it thus in the 1950s.
  3. Bradley, Charles (November 1937). "The Behavior of Children Receiving Benzedrine". American Psychiatric Association: 577–585. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.94.3.577.
  4. Robson, Steve (1 June 2013). "Nazis on narcotics: How Hitler's henchmen stayed alert during war by taking CRYSTAL METH". Dailymail.co.uk. London. Retrieved 6 May 2014.
  5. Freye, Enno (2009). Pharmacology and Abuse of Cocaine, Amphetamines, Ecstasy and Related Designer Drugs. University Düsseldorf, Germany: Springer. p. 110. ISBN 978-90-481-2447-3.
  6. Susann, Jacqueline (1969). The Love Machine. New York: Grove. ISBN 0802135447.
  7. "Benzedrex". B.F. Ascher & Company, inc.
  8. http://www.progressive.org/news/2015/11/188395/dalton-trumbo-screenwriter-who-broke-hollywood%E2%80%99s-blacklist
  9. Fleming, Ian (1954). Live and Let Die. London: Jonathan Cape. p. 191. ISBN 9781612185446.
  10. Fleming, Ian (1962). The Spy Who Loved Me. London: Jonathan Cape. p. 111. ISBN 9781612185538.
  11. Robbins, Tom (1976). Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. United States: Houghton Mifflin. p. 67. ISBN 9780553349498.
  12. Plath, S. (1971). The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row.
  13. Welsh, Irvine (1998). Filth: A Novel. New York: Norton. p. 78. ISBN 9788433967411.
  14. On the Beam – Georgia State University Johnny Mercer Song Database
  15. "On the Beam - Lyrics". Lyrics Playground (after original song recording). Retrieved 11 April 2015.
  16. "Medicine: Benny is My Co-Pilot". Time. 11 June 1956.

17. 20 Dollar Nosebleed By Fall Out Boy

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