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That time in 1893 when a Japanese chemist invented crystal meth

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Though crystal meth has a reputation as an American street drug of the late twentieth century, its origins go back to late-nineteenth century Japan. At that time, a chemist synthesized the first dose of this notorious stimulant out of a plant used frequently in traditional Chinese medicine.

Photo by Jlcoving

Over at The Appendix, Benjamin Breen has a fascinating article about the unassuming prehistory of some of today's most notorious narcotics, from LSD to marijuana and meth. Perhaps the most startling part of his story concerns the origins of meth:

Methamphetamine was synthesized by a middle-aged, respectable Japanese chemist named Nagai Nagayoshi in 1893.

A member of the Meiji Japanese elite, Nagayoshi devoted much of his energy to the chemical analysis of traditional Japanese and Chinese medicines using the tools of Western science. In 1885, Nagai isolated the stimulant ephedrine from Ephedra sinica, a plant long used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.

The year before, in July 1884, Sigmund Freud had published his widely-read encomium to the wonders of cocaine, Über Coca. Cocaine was radically more potent than coca leaves, and chemists the world over were on the lookout for other potential wonder drugs. It's likely that Nagai hoped to work the same magic with ephedra—and in many ways he did. Ephedrine is a mild stimulant, notable nowadays as an ingredient in shady weight-loss supplements and as one of the few drugs permitted to Mormons.

But in 1893, Nagai blazed a chemical trail that would live in infamy: he used ephedrine to synthesize meth . . . In 1919, a younger protégé of Nagai named Akira Ogata discovered a new method of synthesizing the crystalline form of the new stimulant, giving the world crystal meth.

It wasn't until World War II, however, that meth became widespread as a handy tool for keeping tank and bomber crews awake. By 1942, Adolf Hitler was receiving regular IV injections of meth from his physician, Theodor Morell. Two years later the American pharmaceutical company Abbott Laboratories won FDA approval for meth as a prescription treatment for a host of ills ranging from alcoholism to weight gain.


Read more at The Appendix