“Due to the drug’s new found psychiatric uses, Benzedrine Sulfate tablets became a military staple during the World War II by both the Axis and Allied forces.”
Benzedrine Sulfate’s was originally introduced as a decongestant produced in the form of a nasal inhaler. In 1936, Benzadrine Sulfate tablets came on the market to treat a wide variety of medical issues such as narcolepsy, obesity, chronic pain, low blood pressure, libido issues, and even hangovers. Through Smith Kline and French’s research, however, they were able to determine that Benzedrine Sulfate would also be an effective treatment for mood stabilization. It was the drug’s psychiatric possibilities that made Benzedrine Sulfate and other amphetamine’s attractive method of moral boosters to military forces. Due to the drugs new found psychiatric uses, Benzedrine Sulfate tablets became a military staple during the Second World War by Axis and Allied Powers alike.
Technological developments in the 1930s and 1940s brought the promise of operations that spanned greater distances at all hours, but there was an issue with regards to soldiers physical limits. The First World War had brought “shell shock” (now known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) to the forefront of recruiters minds. Due to this, soldiers were screened by the allies in the Second World War for signs of the disease upon enlistment. Nothing was a greater threat to a regime’s morale than crippling mental illness.
Use in World War II
It was the German forces, who were the first to attempt to combat the physical and psychological limits of their enlisted men by encouraging the use of mentally altering drugs. The German’s drug of choice to provide to their soldiers was methamphetamines, marketed as Pervitin by Berlin-based pharmaceutical company Temmler Werke. Referred to as “tank chocolate”, this early form of what is now known as crystal meth allowed soldiers to operate at their best while running on little or no sleep. Pervitin was also a key component in the German strategy for having their soldiers commit terrible atrocities during the Holocaust. Entire groups were encouraged to take a steady stream of Pervitin to forget the terrible war crimes they had committed and continue on with their orders. Taking a few tablets of Pervitin allowed soldiers to suppress the memories of the trauma they had inflicted upon others and remain in good spirits. Throughout the ranks of the German army from the low level private all the way up to Commanders, drugs like Pervitin were being given to fuel the German War machine.
In response, the Allied forces, after witnessing the unrelenting abilities of German pilots during the blitz on London, began testing the use of amphetamines on their own soldiers, while also testing caffeine pills in comparison. Initially, Benzedrine Sulfate tablets produced equal results to caffeine, but the allies made Benzedrine Sulfate tablets standard issue anyhow. In 1945, 15% of army fighter pilots were using the tablets whenever they felt like it. Benzedrine and other precursors to modern antidepressants were as important to the war effort during the Second World War as the soldiers themselves.
Transition to Recreational Use
Following World War Two was when the true crisis of recreational use of Benzedrine Sulfate began. The pills began to be referred to as “wakey wakey” pills and were used and abused by housewives to keep themselves slim. The Cold War saw the reinforcement of gender and beauty standards for women. Many housewives following the war felt the need to make sure they appeared dainty and thin in order to keep their husbands happy. For many, a part of this routine was Benzadrine Sulfate tablets, as Smith Kline and French themselves had at one point marketed the pills for this very use. “Bennies” were a central tool in a women’s disordered eating habits, and ironically contributed to the diagnosis of mental illnesses despite the drug also being a treatment for depression.
Use in Modern Medicine
Today, while Benzedrine sulfate tablets are no longer prescribed, a look at their history does tell us a lot about the ways psychiatric medications are used today. Despite the horrors they helped people commit, anti-depressants such as Benzedrine Sulfate tablets helped free people with mental illnesses from being committed to a life of in-patient psychiatric care, especially for cases of mild to moderate clinical depression and anxiety. Medications such as Prozac and Sertraline have taken the place of Benzedrine sulfate as being the most commonly prescribed medications for depression. In Canada today, 1 in 5 people will experience some form of mental illness and 8% of adults will deal with major depression at some point in their lives. Among members of the Canadian Armed forces rates of mental illness are nearly double that of the general Canadian population. However, abuse of anti-depressants continues to be a serious issue within the forces, as a method to suppress the horrors troops have witnessed. While for some people anti-depressant medications can be a life-changing drug, for others they can just send them further down the rabbit hole.
About the Authour
(HIST-212 Intern, 2020)
Kaelynn Anderson recently graduated from Queen’s University with a Major in History and Minor in Global Development Studies. Kaelynn spent a portion of her final semester with the Museum of Health Care as a Queen’s HIST-212 Intern, focusing on collections and curatorial-based projects (including trade card inventories, walking tour script research, and blog posts like the one above).
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