History of Benzedrine

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Benzedrine inhaler

Benzedrine pills, colloquially referred to as bennies, is the brand name of the first pharmaceutical drug that contained amphetamine. The drug contained the racemic mixture of amphetamine, which is an equal parts mixture of levoamphetamine and dextroamphetamine. It was first marketed in 1933 as a decongestant in the United States by Smith, Kline & French in the form of Benzedrine inhalers.[1] Benzedrine sulfate was introduced three years later and was used to treat a wide variety of medical conditions, including narcolepsy, obesity, low blood pressure, low libido, and chronic pain, among others.[1][2]

History and culture[edit]

While the drug was initially used for medical purposes, as a decongestant, 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.[3]

In 1937, the effects of Benzedrine, and thus stimulant use, was studied in children with behavior and neurological disorders.[4]

Benzedrine was supplied to combat troops in World War 2 for use in exceptional circumstances (e.g. to keep escort ship officers awake and alert in continuous pursuit of submarines for 24 hours or more, and for paratroopers to stay fighting longer) as is documented by some participants, e.g. Nicholas Monsarrat. 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. After its removal from open sale a black market continued in many large cities, to supply addicts and enthusiasts.

Benzedrine and derived amphetamines were used as a stimulant for armed forces during World War II and the Vietnam War.[5] Benzedrine was extensively referenced in Beatnik culture and writings. It was referenced in the works of famous Beats, including Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road, Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar, 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. Benzedrine is frequently referenced in Hubert Selby Jr.'s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn.[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. The active ingredient of Benzedrine in the form of a mixture of various salts and enriched in the dextro-enantiomer is currently prescribed (e.g. under the trade name Adderall) for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.

References in movies and TV[edit]

All About Eve[edit]

There is an exchange between two of the main characters and it is mentioned, "So when you start judging an idealistic, dreamy-eyed kid by the barroom Benzedrine standards of this megalomaniac society, I won't have it."

Deadhead Miles[edit]

In the 1973 film Deadhead Miles Alan Arkin plays a truck driver who takes Benzedrine to stay awake for nearly a week, stating that he sometimes lets "Benny take the wheel."

Decision Before Dawn[edit]

In the 1951 film Decision Before Dawn, the German double agent "Happy" is shown taking a pill from a pillbox labelled "Benzedrine 5 mg," with which the Americans supplied him.

Fawlty Towers[edit]

In 'The Psychiatrist' episode of Fawlty Towers, Season 2, Episode 2, Sybil calls Basil a "Benzedrined puff adder" in reaction to him fawning over the two Doctors who have just arrived, yet in contrast to him spitting bile at the 'low-class' playboy guest he despises. The full line she says is "You never get it right, do you? You're either crawling all over them, licking their boots, or spitting poison at them like some Benzedrined puff adder." The particular irony of John Cleese and Connie Booth including this reference to Benzedrine in the script of this episode is notable as psychiatrists once flirted with Benzedrine as a possible treatment for behavioral and neurological disorders, until much more effective drugs were discovered. Furthermore, Sybil's reference to it is in context to the 'fuelling' of Basil's behaviour, rather than being a 'cure' for it, which better describes the effects of Benzedrine, and all amphetamines.[8]


A film, from 2013, about James Dean and the photographer who took the famous photo of Dean at Times Square, Manhattan, NY. As the two sit with their company in a small bar in New York, a friend of Dean tells him he looks tired, Dean answers, "well I feel tired". As a response to Dean telling his friend that he is tired, a lady in the company says, "well I got something for that", picks up a brown glass container, shakes it around so that one can hear the pills as they hit the glass walls of the bottle, and says "you want a Benzedrine?".

Robocop 2[edit]

While the main antagonist Cain is testing his new designer narcotic "Blue Velvet" he tells the scientist working on it, "The Benzedrine has my teeth wiggling."

Sweet Bird of Youth[edit]

In the 1962 film Sweet Bird of Youth Chance Wayne (Paul Newman), upon hearing of the death of his mother from Philip Abbott as Dr. George Scudder, Dr. Scudder asks "Do you even care that your Mother died?" Chance takes a tin from his pocket, removes a small white pill and places it in his mouth. The Dr. then asks "What is that you just took?" Chance replies "A pill." The Dr. asks "What kind of pill?" Chance replies "Benny, Benzedrine". The Dr. asks "On prescription?" Chance smirks; then nods, and replies "Yeah, sorta; Goofball makes the World keep its balance."

True Detective[edit]

On Season 3 Episode 2 (2019), Wayne “Purple” Hays, a Vietnam War veteran and now detective, says to his partner Roland West, “We should get bennies. Stayin’ up all night.” To which Roland replies, “Glove box. Red-and-blue ones.” The two stressed, pressured detectives are on night patrol in West Finger, Arkansas, and are preparing for a very important investigation the following morning. Being a Vietnam War veteran, Detective Wayne “Purple” Hays is familiar with recreational use of the stimulant ‘bennies.’

The Last Tycoon[edit]

In season 1 episode 3 of the Amazon original series, a woman named Carol gives a Benzedrine inhaler to a Shirley Temple-esque child actress named Sally while on a movie set, after Sally repeatedly complains about being too tired to dance or rehearse. Later in the episode, Monroe Stahr (Matt Bomer) tells the child star that she needs to stop acting so badly if she wants to be a "big star like Margo Taft someday..." Then, while walking away, Monroe speaks to Carol (her handler/mother), advising her to back-off the usage of the "Benzedrine" because the child is only seven years old.

An ironic plotline is the child actress indeed sees the Margo Taft character as an icon and role model, and later we get to see Margo Taft (played by Jennifer Beals) judiciously using the same type of Benzedrine inhaler in her dressing room, earning herself a disapproving look of recognition from her maid/assistant. This subtle but important plot point has many implications, including the idea of pervasive drug use in the industry beginning in childhood. In another episode, we are shown to the use of heroin amongst the writing staff, as well as numerous references to the heavy use of alcohol amongst the general staff and spouses.

The Man in the High Castle[edit]

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 Cañon City (Canyon City).


The screenplay writer Dalton Trumbo was known to be dependent upon Benzedrine,[9] which he often combined with hard liquor, as portrayed in the 2015 film Trumbo.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me[edit]

In David Lynch's film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), a young woman, Shelly Johnson, is married to an abusive husband (Leo Johnson). While in a cleaning frenzy and apparently under the influence, Leo aggressively admonishes Shelly's cleaning approach. She replies: "Lay off the bennies, Leo." [10]

Vanishing Point[edit]

Kowalski, the main character in the 1971 film Vanishing Point uses Benzedrine pills to keep him awake as he races his iconic Dodge Challenger from Colorado to California.


In a film 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[edit]

Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn[edit]

Throughout the entire book characters within the chapters take Benzedrine (bennies) excessively.

Characters like Goldie, Georgette, Rosie, Malfie, Freddie, Harry Black, etc. take Benzedrine with alcohol to enter a drunken and high state.

Ian Fleming's James Bond references[edit]

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, as does another character. In the first book, Casino Royale written in 1953, soviet agent Le Chiffre is depicted making use of a Benzedrine inhaler as he plays baccarat.

James Bond's first use of Benzedrine is in the form of tablets in the book Live and Let Die[11] "...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 second instance of James Bond using Benzedrine is in Moonraker where early in the book he uses a champagne and Benzedrine mixed drink, of which he says "Never Again," to stay alert enough to beat the villain Hugo Drax at a game of high-stakes contract bridge.

The third use is 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. The book says Bond, "...took out two and when I gave him the coffee he swallowed them down. 'Benzedrine. That'll keep me awake for tonight.'"[12]

Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get The Blues[edit]

"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."[13]

Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar[edit]

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."[14]

Irvine Welsh's Filth[edit]

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."[15]

Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones[edit]

In Chapter 9 of the novel, Susie recalls that her grandmother and mother "had fought about whether I was old enough for Benzedrine — her own personal savior, she called it." Grandma Lynn had told Susie that "'You need to get yourself starved down, honey, before you keep fat on for too long. Baby fat is just another way to say ugly.'" Benzedrine was Grandma Lynn's "personal savior" because it helped her achieve a "starved down" appearance; to Susie, her grandmother looked "rail thin."

Jack Kerouac's On The Road[edit]

In chapter 7 of part one While in Denver Sal receives a call from Carlo Marx and in this call Carlo describes his life in Denver. A part of this description mentions how Carlo and Dean Moriarty would take Benzedrine. After doing so they'd "sit on the beds, crosslegged, facing each other."[16]

Robert Crumb's Fritz the Cat[edit]

In Robert Crumb's "Fritz Bugs Out," Fritz the Cat complains of his college roommates that "take some bennies an' stay up all night with [their faces] in a bunch of books."

Joanna Russ' We Who Are About To...[edit]

In Joanna Russ's feminist work We Who Are About To... the unnamed protagonist is unable to bond with the establishment figures with whom she has been marooned. She jokes to the bureaucrat Ude that the meagre first aid kit they have is "Benzedrine and bobby-pins!" but regrets that her joke is "too vulgar, base and popular" to be understood.[17]

References in music[edit]

Johnny Cash - Committed to Parkview[edit]

Johnny Cash in his One Piece at a Time (album) chronicled his struggles with Benzedrine. The song is later covered by The Highwaymen
"Tryin' to kick benzedrine
There's a real fine country singer
Who has tried and tried and tried
They just brought him in this morning
An attempted suicide" [18]

Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombone[edit]

"Swordfishtrombone" was written by Tom Waits, and can be found as the third track on the second side of his similarly named album Swordfishtrombones. The song is about an unnamed character, who is mentioned using Benzedrine.
"Well he packed up all his
expectations he lit out for California
with a flyswatter banjo on his knee
with a Lucky Tiger in his angel hair
and Benzedrine for getting there" [19]

Elton John - Bennie and the Jets[edit]

Bennie and the Jets is a song composed by Elton John and Bernie Taupin. The song's titular character "Bennie" is an allusion to Benzedrine. Similarly, the titular "Jets" is an allusion to "speed" (a popular street name for amphetamines).[20]

Song in You Were Never Lovelier, movie 1942[edit]

"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.[21] 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."[22]
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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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.[23]

Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen[edit]

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.[24]

Bud Brewer/Gary Stewart[edit]

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?"[edit]

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"[edit]

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."

Stone Sour – "Black John"[edit]

The song "Black John," by American rock band Stone Sour, released in 2013 on House of Gold & Bones, Pt. II, referenced the drug by name:
"The deadly frost is in the green
You don't know what I mean
You'll find the Benzedrine can throw you off the edge"

Dear and the Headlights – "Carl Solomon Blues"[edit]

The drug is mentioned in the pre-chorus of the song Carl Solomon Blues by Dear and the Headlights, from their second album Drunk Like Bible Times.
"Off somewhere in a New York Flat,
Benzedrine derailed rants, of
immeasurable frenetic praise,
that cauterize before they save."

Thea Gilmore - "Benzedrine"

The song "Benzedrine", written by Thea Gilmore, appears on her 2001 album Rules For Jokers.

Trucker Speed - Fred Eaglesmith[edit]

And it's trucker speed, benzedrine
Percocets and amphetamines
Black beautys and west coast turn arounds
When the coast is clear I drive with my knees
I mix it all up in a recipe
Coca-Cola and coffee to wash it down
Sometimes I feel like my wheels ain't touching the ground

Sister Josephine - Jake Thackray[edit]

Verse 5[edit]

Oh, Sister Josephine,
Founder of the convent pontoon team,
They're looking through your bundles of rare magazines
After Sister Josephine.
While you, Sister Josephine,
You give a goodbye sniff of benzedrine
To the convent budgerigar.
A bloody funny nun you are!

References in games[edit]

L.A. Noire[edit]

The fictional 1940s adventure game sees the protagonist, Cole Phelps, interrogate a doctor who prescribed the drug to a new deceased character. There is also a side mission about arresting a Benzedrine addict that has broken into a pharmacy in search of the drug.

Metal Gear Solid[edit]

1998's hit PlayStation game features protagonist Solid Snake making mention of benzedrine to Dr. Naomi Hunter. Snake states that Dr. Hunter "can leave out the benzedrine. That stuff makes me too frisky.", when discussing his nanomachines and overall health while imprisoned on Shadow Moses Island.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Rasmussen N (July 2006). "Making the first anti-depressant: amphetamine in American medicine, 1929–1950". J. Hist. Med. Allied Sci. 61 (3): 288–323. doi:10.1093/jhmas/jrj039. PMID 16492800. However the firm happened to discover the drug, SKF first packaged it as an inhaler so as to exploit the base’s volatility and, after sponsoring some trials by East Coast otolaryngological specialists, began to advertise the Benzedrine Inhaler as a decongestant in late 1933.
  2. ^ Bett WR (August 1946). "Benzedrine sulphate in clinical medicine; a survey of the literature". Postgrad. Med. J. 22: 205–218. doi:10.1136/pgmj.22.250.205. PMC 2478360. PMID 20997404.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ Bradley, Charles (November 1937). "The Behaviour of Children Receiving Benzedrine". American Journal of Psychiatry. 94 (3): 577–585. doi:10.1176/ajp.94.3.577.
  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. ^ https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=fawlty-towers&episode=s02e02
  9. ^ "Dalton Trumbo, the Screenwriter Who Broke Hollywood's Blacklist". 5 November 2015.
  10. ^ From the original screenplay: "Fire Walk With Me, Teresa Banks and the Last Seven Days of Laura Palmer". 8 August 1991. by David Lynch and Bob Engels
  11. ^ Fleming, Ian (1954). Live and Let Die. London: Jonathan Cape. p. 191. ISBN 9781612185446.
  12. ^ Fleming, Ian (1962). The Spy Who Loved Me. London: Jonathan Cape. p. 111. ISBN 9781612185538.
  13. ^ Robbins, Tom (1976). Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. United States: Houghton Mifflin. p. 67. ISBN 9780553349498.
  14. ^ Plath, S. (1971). The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row.
  15. ^ Welsh, Irvine (1998). Filth: A Novel. New York: Norton. p. 78. ISBN 9788433967411.
  16. ^ Kerouac, Jack (2011). On The Road. United States: Penguin. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-14-312028-5.
  17. ^ Russ, Joanna (2017). We Who Are About To... Great Britain: Penguin. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-2412-5374-8.
  18. ^ "Committed to Parkview". Lyrics.com. Retrieved 18 April 2019.
  19. ^ "Lyrics: Swordfishtrombones: Swordfishtrombone". Tom Waits Library. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
  20. ^ Nordegren, Thomas (2002). The A-Z Encyclopedia of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. p. 108.
  21. ^ "On the Beam – Georgia State University Johnny Mercer Song Database". Archived from the original on 31 January 2016. Retrieved 25 January 2016.
  22. ^ "On the Beam - Lyrics". Lyrics Playground (after original song recording). Retrieved 11 April 2015.
  23. ^ FallOutBoyVEVO (16 June 2009), Fall Out Boy - America's Suitehearts, retrieved 27 March 2019
  24. ^ "Medicine: Benny is My Co-Pilot". Time. 11 June 1956.