Pharmacy Fact: Amphetamines Make Things Slightly Better Until They Don’t, Inventor Finds
In 1932, chemist Gordon Alles synthesized the compound beta-phenylisopropylamine while investigating a new asthma medicine.
In 1932, chemist Gordon Alles was investigating a new asthma medicine. Hoping to develop a better version of ephedrine, a decongestant and bronchodilator that was very successful on the market, Alles began to look further into the compound beta-phenylisopropylamine for answers.1,2
Although he didn’t know it at the time, Alles was not the first to discover this compound. Romanian chemist Lazar Edeleanu had first synthesized the drug in 1887, but upon testing it, had found it to be quite useless as it didn’t cure anything. Unaware and undeterred, Alles went ahead with his own investigation into the compound’s benefits.1
As was the common practice of the time, Alles had his colleague inject 50 milligrams of the amphetamine into Alles’s body for the first clinical trial in a human on June 3, 1929. At the time, researchers believed it was a moral duty to first test a drug they were developing on themselves before testing it on other humans.1
Based on prior trials conducted in guinea pigs, Alles estimated a nonlethal dose of the drug for injection into himself. However, his estimate would be 5 times greater than the later recommendation for administration.1
After 7 minutes, he found that his nose was incredibly clear. Feeling pretty positive about that, he also began to notice his blood pressure rise while observing an increase in heart palpitations. Despite these relatively alarming experiences, he wrote down that he did also have a pretty pervasive “feeling of well being.”1
Continuing to feel awesome, Alles decided to go to a dinner party with some friends. He noted that while at the party, he found himself exceptionally charismatic and witty, as he partook in excellent banter.1
About 8 hours later, his blood pressure began to drop back down to normal. Despite this more normalized blood pressure, Alles did still note that he had a “rather sleepless night,” as his “mind seemed to run from one subject to another.”1
Finding these adverse effects to not be unfavorable, Alles recorded the trial as a success. He then proceeded to test the drug on his patients with asthma.1
After giving one of his patients with asthma 20 milligrams of amphetamine orally, he observed no real benefits to her asthma symptoms; however, she did feel great and that was a positive outcome they both could get behind.1
Still feeling pretty optimistic about his instinct on this one, Alles began to investigate whether the “feeling great” aspect of the drug was marketable, despite the drug having no other medical application.1
Alles began to share the drug in a small group of his colleagues to get their thoughts and opinions on their experience with it. After receiving several positive reviews, Alles went to the US patent office and declared himself the official inventor of both amphetamine sulfate and amphetamine hydrochloride in 1932, with the fact that he hadn’t actually invented these compounds not really posing a problem for him.1
With the patent in hand, he still didn’t have any resources to determine what the “medicinal” value of the drug could be, since there didn’t seem to be one, yet. He went to the offices of the Philadelphia pharmaceutical firm Smith, Kline, and French (SKF) to inquire as to their interest in his drug and their capacity to help him figure out how to get people on board with consuming it.1
Since SKF already had just patented another amphetamine product, the Benzedrine inhaler, almost simultaneously with Alles’ patent, and they had found the product to be quite lucrative, they decided the opportunity was worth the investment. They provided Alles with royalty payments, a salary, and a lab space to pursue his work.1
With the marketing strength of SKF behind Alles, the stimulant aspect of amphetamine allowed it to be branded as a wonder drug “pep pill,” which was usable by anyone who wanted to increase their productivity. In the 1930s, the pill was soon widely used among a varied audience, from American soldiers to college students.1,2
By the 1960s, consumers had also learned that the drug helped to decrease appetite and increase weight loss, leading the drug to get branded as “mother’s little helpers.” Housewives across the country were finding amphetamines a helpful tool for keeping slim, productive, and peppy.2
The downside to all that pep was something called “amphetamine psychosis,” which mainly consisted of hallucinations, but also contributed to an ongoing spiral of addiction. For consumers experiencing amphetamine psychosis, the hallucinations did not feel so good. As such, amphetamines also became a helpful tool at their fingertips for treating their amphetamine psychosis, making the hallucinations even worse, and so forth.2
By 1970, the downsides of amphetamines were widely acknowledged by the industry, bringing the drugs under tight restrictions.2 However, once Alles and SKF had brought amphetamines to the world, they would never truly leave, as methamphetamines would bring unbridled destruction to populations the world over, regardless of the drug's capacity to improve pep or heighten users' experience of some really excellent banter at dinner parties.1
- Hicks J. Fast Times: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of Amphetamine. Science History Institute. https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/fast-times-the-life-death-and-rebirth-of-amphetamine. Published April 14, 2012. Accessed April 29, 2021.
- Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.