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Education: Higher Education

America’s Mind-Altering History

Class 5. Combat, Counter-culture, and Kids – From Amphetamine to Ritalin


The fifth class reviews the history of amphetamine from its use as a performance-enhancing drug for pilots and soldiers, who needed to stay awake and aggressive while on active duty, to its rise as a counter-culture drug, capable of inspiring the Beat generation to new heights of spontaneous, emotion-rich and anti-establishment writing. During the mid-19th century, an amphetamine with the trade name “Dexedrine” was a popular prescription weight-loss drug for women. Doctors even began prescribing children amphetamine to combat “minimal brain dysfunction” (hyperactivity) during the period. This trend continues today with a range of stimulants being used to treat attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and enhance academic performance. Indeed, few drugs have been deployed as variably, successfully, and at times perilously, as the amphetamines, and reveal as much about the American character and American values (e.g. aggression, thinness, academic excellence, and workplace productivity) across the 20th century. Today’s methamphetamine epidemic continues this trend. In America’s heartland, workers employ the drug as they struggle to hold double shifts, compensating for the reduced wages that accompany the global economic restructuring of agriculture. The readings speak to the multiple utilities of the amphetamines – recreational, medicinal, social, and economic – over the past one hundred years, and the ways in which these performance-enhancing stimulants have served many American interests. As with other units, this class encourages students to explore how a drug’s identity—medicinal, recreational, and performance-enhancing—varies among temporal and cultural contexts.

Class Resources
  • Lind, Welfred. “With a B-29 over Japan—A Pilot’s Story.” New York Times Sunday Magazine, March 25, 1945, pp. 5, 37-38
  • Davis, Fred and Laura Munoz. “Heads and Freaks—Patterns and Meanings of Drug Use among Hippies.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 9, 1968, pp. 156-64.
  • McBee, Susanna. “The End of the Rainbow May be Tragic: Scandal of the Diet Pills.” Life Magazine, 64 (January 26, 1968).
  • Wurtzel, Elizabeth. More, Now, Again—A Memoir of Addiction. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.
  • Rasmussen, Nicolas. “Bootleggers, Beatniks, and Benzedrine Benders.” In On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine, New York and London: New York University Press, 2008, pp. 87-112.
  • ___. “Weight Stigma, Addiction, Science, and the Medication of Fatness in Mid-Twentieth-Century America.” Sociology of Health and Illness 34 (July 2012), pp. 880-95.
  • Reding, Nick. “Prologue” and “The Inland Empire.” In Methland—The Death and Life of an American Small Town. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009, pp. 1-18, 58-72.
  • Singh, Ilina. “Not Just Naughty—50 Years of Stimulant Drug Advertising.” In Medicating Modern America—Prescription Drugs in History, edited by Andrea Tone and Elizabeth Watkins. New York and London: New York University Press, 2007, pp. 131-55.

Discussion Questions
  1. It has been argued that amphetamine and its pharmacological “cousins” such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) are “quintessentially American.” Do you think that this is true? Consider the different utilities of these drugs for those who employ them. Do these multiple utilities make amphetamine a more dangerous drug than one that is exclusively recreational or medicinal?
  2. Is Lori Arnold, the queen of the “Inland Empire” in Nick Reding’s Methland, a first-class entrepreneur or a sociopath? How are her actions to build her empire different from and similar to, say, those of a pharmaceutical company CEO wishing to develop new markets for amphetamine? Explain your reasoning. What does her story say about the nature of the methamphetamine epidemic in the United States? Is there a difference between obtaining drugs from a pharmaceutical company or a drug dealer if the drugs will be used for the same purpose?
  3. How does an appreciation of the ways in which methamphetamine use is linked to global economic changes within the agriculture industry change the way you view the methamphetamine addict?
  4. How does gender affect amphetamine and methamphetamine use across the 20th century? How does class influence amphetamine and methamphetamine use across the 20th century?
  5. What are some commonalities among the varied uses of amphetamine and methamphetamine throughout the 20th century?
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