Old Story, Updated: Better Living Through Pills
Athletes taking performance-enhancing drugs. Growing concern about a reliance on pills for relief from pain, stress and anxiety. Medical leaders alarmed about drug fads, calling on doctors to exercise restraint when prescribing.
Headlines from 2007? Try 1957. Today, the drugs are OxyContin, steroids and Ritalin. Fifty years ago, they were tranquilizers, sedatives and amphetamines: America was a Cold War nation in need of both pep and relief.
And while the context is different today (we have a larger and more complex array of drugs), the underlying issues are unchanged: Americans, athletes as well as nonathletes, grappled then as now with the proper role of drugs in their lives.
In 1957, the American Medical Association began an investigation of “pep pills” in sports. In track and field alone, a dozen runners had run the four-minute mile in the three years since Roger Bannister first did it. How could this be possible, the doctors wanted to know, without stimulating drugs? Were athletes using amphetamines to stimulate the nervous system, reduce fatigue and improve performance?
Adding to suspicions, some athletes admitted turning to drugs for extra pep. Bruno Banducci, an offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1950s, acknowledged using the amphetamine Benzedrine to maintain his endurance. “We players did this on our own,” he said, taking team doctors off the hook.
Australian Olympic swimmers were under a similar cloud; even high school athletes were suspected. For others, the goal was relief and tranquillity after the tough performance. Al Aber, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, and other teammates said their team doctor prescribed tranquilizers to ease muscular and nervous tension.
The problem, of course, was not confined to athletes. Better living through chemistry was a consumer phenomenon of the ’50s. Americans looked to doctors and so-called miracle drugs not only to battle infections, but increasingly to pick them up for the day and calm them down at night. Prescriptions for Benzedrine and its sister drug Dexedrine were given for reasons like depression, fatigue and appetite suppression.
Sales of the pep pills were mushrooming, pushing the boundaries of chemical enhancement and medicated relief. And since being introduced in 1954, tranquilizers had become a $200 million industry. The drugs were promoted by makers, psychiatrists, nurses and psychologists as the true answer to mental illness, psychoses, neuroses, stress and common anxiety.
By 1957, the shortcomings of using drugs to navigate the frustrations of work and life, to pursue both pep and tranquillity, were becoming evident. The Army, which had embraced the use of no-go pills (tranquilizers) for its pilots, was reconsidering the practice.
The four-minute-mile controversy produced no lasting historical scandals — no confessionals akin to the slugger Jose Canseco’s recent tell-all book, and no lingering controversy like the Barry Bonds saga. The cloud over Bannister’s achievement dissipated quickly; he brushed aside the charges as ridiculous and went on to a distinguished medical career. In 1959, the A.M.A. study concluded that there was little evidence to the specific allegations.
Yet the shadow over performance enhancement and drugs would not diminish. The cloud — the use of substances to gain an extra edge, to break through barriers or to merely endure the day or relax and recover at night — lingered not over a particular sport, but over society.
In 1957, the tide was turning on an unregulated age of wonder drugs. There were growing concerns about side effects and prescribing practices, legislative discussions of the need for warning labels and stricter controls on pharmaceutical advertising, and frustrated calls for enhanced federal regulation.
Drug innovation, of course, did not cease. And so the drug scene and its controversies blossomed. Mother’s Little Helper (Valium) was just around the corner, as was the scandal that would lead to more vigorous government oversight — the thalidomide debacle, in which malformed babies were born to pregnant mothers (mostly in Europe) who had taken a new sedative.
The ’60s would become another distinctive drug decade. With its tilt toward psychedelics and experimentation, the younger generation was picking up where many moms and dads had left off. The year 1957 also saw the birth of Ritalin, marketed as an amphetamine-like stimulant. It would take decades for this upstart to find its place in the American drug scene, nurtured in part by the tensions of parents and children over hyperactivity and attention deficit, which was hardly known at the time.
And 1957 produced lucid moments that resonate a half century later. Surgeon General Leroy E. Burney, taking stock of the American prescription scene, pronounced then that “problems of daily living cannot be solved with a pill.” Then as now, many Americans believed and practiced just the opposite.
Dr. Keith Wailoo is a professor of history and health policy at Rutgers and the director of its Center for Race and Ethnicity.