It's surprisingly hard to find the history of drugs in the medical literature -- Dexedrine, Benzedrine, Norodin and the like don't show up in today's reference books. So I appreciated this Salon book review summary, but I found it confusing -- on first reading I thought they were claiming that Benzedrine was methamphetamine! I've added some clarifications in square brackets.
... The synthetic methamphetamine has a horticultural analog in ephedra vulgaris, used for millennia by the Chinese as an herbal remedy for asthma and other breathing ailments. In 1887, a Japanese scientist identified ephedra's active ingredient, ephedrine, a chemical similar to adrenaline. The same year, the German L. Edeleano used ephedrine as the base to create phenylisopropylamine, now known as amphetamine.
But because the substance seemed to have no useful medical applications, the malign genie remained in the bottle until the 1920s, when ephedrine was first used to treat asthma in clinical trials in North America and Europe. Meanwhile, a Japanese scientist developed a more powerful synthetic version of the drug that came to be known as methamphetamine [d-desoxyephedrine]. In 1927, a British research chemist at UCLA named Gordon Alles resynthesized Edeleano's drug [amphetamine sulfate] for use as a bronchodilator, and subsequently sold the formula for use as an over-the-counter inhalant.
The new drug, christened Benzedrine [amphetamine sulfate], was initially marketed as a miracle cure, "used to treat obesity, epilepsy, schizophrenia, cerebral palsy, hypertension, 'irritable colon,' 'caffeine mania,' and even hiccups." By the 1950s, variations on its chemical theme included Dexedrine [dextroamphetamine sulfate], whose "gentle stimulation will provide the patient with a new cheerfulness, optimism, and feeling of well-being"; Norodin [?], "useful in reducing the desire for food"; Desoxyn [methamphetamine], for "When she's ushered by temptation"; and Syndrox [?], "For the patient who is all flesh and no will power."
All these testimonials originated in medical journals, and the drugs were targeted at women, mostly as "pick-me-ups" and diet aids. But even prior to the 1950s, amphetamine and methamphetamine had begun to leave their mark upon the American heartland. During World War II, factories at the San Diego naval base provided troops overseas with Benzedrine. Owen claims "GIs consumed an estimated 200 million pills," causing untold numbers of soldiers to return stateside with an amphetamine habit...
Methamphetamine was sold as Methedrine and Desoxyn in the US -- and administered to Japanese industrial workers to increase productivity, I can't figure out what Norodin and Syndrox were, but I'm willing to believe they were also methamphetamine.
While trying to figure this out I came across references like this one ...
THE BEHAVIOR OF CHILDREN RECEIVING BENZEDRINECharles Bradley M. D. Am J Psychiatry 94:577-585, November 1937
The psychological reactions of 30 behavior problem children who received benzedrine sulfate for one week were observed. There was a spectacular improvement in school performance in half of the children. A large proportion of the patients became emotionally subdued without, however, losing interest in their surroundings...
Well, there had to be something before Ritalin. [Update 8/17: I'm a bit behind on my sleep. Adderall, which is in use today, is amphetamine-dextroamphetamine. So this was probably one of the first studies of what is now sold as Adderall. When I came across this out of context, I was shocked by the study. In my case, the reaction is noteworthy.]
I'm sure methamphetamine was very effective as a weight loss pill. It would be interesting to know the stories of the women who used Desoxyn for weight loss in the 1950s. Many should be living today. How did their stories compare to the meth addicts of the modern era?