Did Mrs. Murphy Abuse Benzedrine? Or Did She Have ADHD?

Benzedrine ADHD

Benzedrine is not today a stimulant used to treat ADHD. But it was used to treat many things—perhaps including unrecognized ADHD—in the past.

Maybe you’re too young to have heard the song, “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine.” It was definitely before my time.  Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, however, we can all watch whenever we like.

There she is in the “before” picture, above, exhausted. The poor thing’s barely able to push her scrub brush around the floor.

Next thing we know,  she’s hippity-hop and Betty Boop is doing an intervention. But wait. Now Mrs. Murphy—bobby-soxed and chipper—is energetically leading the swing orchestra.

You can click to play the video later in this post—and find lyrics toward the end.

benzedrine ADHD

Meanwhile, the question remains: Was Mrs. Murphy abusing a stimulant? Or, did she have ADHD?  Perhaps with a little more info about her, we could make a case either way.

I share this not to offer a diagnosis of a cartoon figure but as historical proof that stimulants are not new. Neither is ADHD.

Given plentiful pearl-clutching headlines about stimulant abuse, you’d think modern ADHD diagnosis and treatment has caused the phenomenon. But it’s not true. Not by long shot.

In my first book (Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?), I write briefly about the history of neurostimulants, such as Benzedrine. This includes the accidental discovery leading to stimulants being recognized as a treatment for ADHD. In the 1930s.

Benzedrine ad

In this Post:

I’ll cover a few points:

  1. Amphetamine use and abuse is not new.  ADHD diagnoses and medications did not cause the amphetamine epidemic of 1928-1971
  2. But lingering remembrance of the “epidemic” perhaps casts a shadow on the legitimate treatment for ADHD: stimulant medications.
  3. Historical information on Benzedrine: It was once used as an asthma inhaler—interesting given that asthma rates are elevated in the ADHD population.
  4. The clever animation of Mrs. Murphy
  5. The lyrics and a reference to more info on the original hipster: Harry Gibson.

I hope you find all this as interesting as I did!

Humans are Stimulus-Driven Creatures

As long as humans have had access to substances, there has been abuse. Humans have abused amphetamine-class stimulants since 1928 and probably earlier.

Yet, for all we know, many cases of “abuse” were simply people with ADHD finding benefit from the stimulant. Today, there is no question that millions benefit from responsible ADHD treatment using stimulants.

Prescribed responsibly, Mrs. Murphy’s spiked Ovaltine wouldn’t have interfered with sleep. Nor would it have made her into a Domestic Robot. But it might have boosted her motivation and focus to live life to it’s fullest—and get stuff done.

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Produced During the “Amphetamine Epidemic”

Harry “The Hipster” Gibson wrote and performed Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine in 1944.  (See more about him below.)

Some medical historians place would place 1944 smack in the middle of the “amphetamine epidemic” in the U.S.. (It happened elsewhere, too,  though. In the UK, a 1960 study of retail prescriptions showed 3% were for amphetamines.)

You can read more about in the American Journal of Public Health: America’s First Amphetamine Epidemic, 1929-1971.

That paper cites figures indicating that per-doctor visit around 1960, a woman was twice as likely as a man to receive an amphetamine prescription to “adjust her mental state”. The pattern with minor tranquilizers in the same period was similar.

This ad above (“…if the individual is depressed…”) makes some sense. Many people with ADHD have long been and still are misdiagnosed with depression or anxiety (because living with unrecognized ADHD can be depressing and anxiety-creating). Yet, they find their “depression” goes away only when their ADHD is treated, with a stimulant.

In fact, some people with undiagnosed ADHD suffer for years, only getting worse on antidepressants until their “depression” (ADHD) is properly treated.  (Misdiagnosed with Depression Until 39: “Best Week of My Life”)

And, of course, amphetamines were also used for weight loss.  But again: “Abusing” amphetamines or, in some cases at least, treating ADHD? I covered interesting research here: ADHD and Obesity: A Connection?

Benzedrine inhaler

Historical Info

Meanwhile, here is information adapted from Wikipedia:

(Note: Google Search will penalize my blog for over-using the word, so I’ll leave the first reference and edit out the others)

Benzedrine is the trade name of the racemic mixture of amphetamine (dl-amphetamine). The drug was often referred to as “bennies”.

It was marketed under this brand name in the USA by Smith, Kline & French in the form of inhalers, starting in 1928. Used to enlarge nasal and bronchial passages,  it is closely related to other stimulants produced later, such as dextroamphetamine (d-amphetamine) and methamphetamine.

While the drug was initially used for medical purposes, as a bronchodilator, early users of the inhaler discovered that it had a euphoric stimulant effect, resulting in its being one of the earliest synthetic stimulants to be widely used for recreational (i.e., non-medical) purposes.

Even though this drug was intended for inhalation, some people used the drug recreationally by cracking the container open and swallowing the paper strip inside. The strips were often rolled into small balls and swallowed, or taken with coffee or alcohol.

Because of the stimulant side effect, physicians discovered that amphetamine could also be used to treat narcolepsy. This led to the production in tablet form. Doctors used it to perk up lethargic patients before breakfast.

In 1937, its use was studied in children with behavior and neurological disorders.

By the 1940s and 1950s, reports began to emerge about the recreational use of the inhalers, and in 1949, doctors began to move away from prescribing the drug as a bronchodilator and appetite suppressant.

In 1959, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made it a prescription drug. It and derived amphetamines were used as a stimulant for armed forces in World War II and Vietnam.

Play the Video

Now For the Lyrics

Again, to avoid the wrath of Google search, I am limiting the number of times the “B word” is repeated.

Note: This is Harry’s adaption of the old Irish folk song, “Who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?”

Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?

Lyrics by Harry “The Hipster” Gibson

Mrs. Murphy couldn’t sleep

Her nerves were slightly off the bean

Until she solved her problem

With a can of Ovaltine

She drank a cupful most every night

And ooh how she would dream

Until something rough got in the stuff

And made her neighbors scream. OW!

Who put the [X], in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?

Sure was a shame, don’t know who’s to blame

Cause the old lady didn’t even get his name

Where did she get that stuff?

Now she just can’t get enough

It might have been the man who wasn’t there

Now Jack, that guy’s a square

She never ever wants to go to sleep

She says that everything is solid all reet

Now Mr. Murphy don’t know what it’s all about

Cause she went and threw the old man out, Clout

Who put the [X] in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?

Now she wants to swing, the Highland Fling

She says that [X] is the thing that makes her spring.

Second Chorus:

This is the second chorus you know

The name of this chorus is called, “Who put the Nembutals in Mr. Murphy’s overalls?

I don’t know

She bought a can of Ovaltine, most every week or so

And she always kept an extra can on hand

Just in case that she’d run low

She never never been so happy, since she left old Ireland

‘Till someone prowled her pantry, and tampered with her can. Wham!

Who put the [X], in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?

Sure was a shame, don’t know who’s to blame

Cause the old lady didn’t even get his name

Where did she get that stuff

Now she just can’t get enough

It might have been the man who wasn’t there

Now Jack, that guy’s a square

She stays up nights making all the rounds

They say she lost about 69 pounds

Now Mr. Murphy claims she’s getting awful thin

And all she says is, “Give me some skin.” Mop!

Who put the [X], in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?

Now she wants to swing the Highland Fling

She says that [X]‘s the thing that makes her spring.

Spring it now, Gibson

Harry "The Hipster" Gibson

Harry “The Hipster” Gibson: One Cool Cat

In fact, Harry was the original hipster, according to this article:  1947-48 Harry The Hipster


In the first decade of the 20th century, the words “hep” and “hip” were used interchangeably to mean “aware.” The precise origin of the words is unknown, though one theory suggests slaves from Senegal used the word xipi (pronounced “hippy” or “hippeh” in the native Wolof language), which means “to have your eyes open and be aware.”

Calling someone hip or hep became a way to note their sophistication, coolness or knowledge of fashion. It was particularly prevalent in the world of jazz, where the coolest and most in-the-know characters were called “hepcats.” In 1939, Cab Calloway published his lexicon of jazz vernacular, Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary: Language of Jive, a pun on Webster’s Dictionary. “Hepster” came to mean a white fan of jazz.

If one person can be identified as the first hipster, it might be Harry Gibson, born Harry Raab in the Bronx in 1915. Growing up around Harlem, Raab adopted jive talk, and became a proficient and energetic jazz pianist in speakeasies.

In 1939, Fats Waller recruited him as his intermission act, and Raab lifted a new stage name, Gibson, off a gin bottle.

For the next six years, he studied music at Juilliard during the day and played at various jazz clubs along the “Swing Street” stretch of 52nd Street at night. During this period, he started calling out to his audience as “hipsters,” and soon adopted the appellation for himself, with his original song “Handsome Harry the Hipster.”

As always, I welcome your comments.

No registration needed—or annoying codes to enter.

—Gina Pera

This is a revised version of the post appearing June 14, 2012


6 thoughts on “Did Mrs. Murphy Abuse Benzedrine? Or Did She Have ADHD?”

  1. I can empathize with those who self-medicate. Just today I was in the pharmacy looking longingly at the nicotine patches.

  2. Sanford Scholton

    Kinda surprised you didn’t mention that bennies were heavily used in WW2…which probably led to the problems later on.

    1. Well, I did include this:

      It and derived amphetamines were used as a stimulant for armed forces in World War II and Vietnam.

      I figured that part was more well-known, though.


  3. Thank you, Gina! This is a gem!

    And you are so right. Humans have had trouble with addictions since there were humans, most likely. It’s not fair to blame misuse of stimulants on ADHD, and no doubt many people start “self-medicating” with stimulants because they don’t know they have ADHD but it helps.

    Thanks for all your hard work in informing and entertaining us!


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