Guest Post: Pervitin instead of coffee? Change in attitudes to cognitive enhancement in the 50’s and 60’s in Brazil
Written by Marcelo de Araujo
State University of Rio de Janeiro
CNPq – The Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development
How does our attitude to drugs in general shape our reaction to “smart drugs” in particular? Ruairidh Battleday and Anna-Katharine Brem have recently published a systematic review of 24 studies on the effect of modafinil on healthy individuals. They concluded that “modafinil may well deserve the title of the first well-validated pharmaceutical ‘nootropic’ agent.” This publication has rekindled the debate on the ethics of “smart drugs”. Of course further studies are necessary for a better assessment of the safety and efficacy of modafinil. But if modafinil, or some other drug, proves safe and effective in the future, are there reasons to oppose its widespread use in society?
There has been some concern that, in the future, cognitive enhancement may contribute to social inequality; that it will undermine effort; that employers may want to compel employees to enhance themselves; and that individuals who would not feel inclined to enhance themselves in the first place will have to bear the social pressure to think otherwise if they are to keep up with the constraints of the job market. These questions have been addressed by many ethicists – both for and against cognitive enhancement. But instead of speculating about the societal implications of cognitive enhancement in the future, we may as well examine how people dealt with cognitive enhancement in the recent past.
If you are over 75 years old in Brazil chances are that you bought a cognitive enhancer called Pervitin at a local drugstore in the 50’s and early 60’s. No prescriptions were required before 1963. Pervitin was a methamphetamine developed by the Germans shortly before the outbreak of World War II. During the war German soldiers were supplied with huge amounts of Pervitin in order to keep alert and fend off fatigue. It is believed that the so-called “Blitzkrieg” was driven by Pervitin. After the war Pervitin found its way into other markets, including Brazil.
After a quick survey on the occurrence of “Pervitin” in Brazilian newspapers from the 50’s and 60’s, I was surprised to realize that until the late 50’s the use of this drug as a cognitive enhancer was socially acceptable, and in some cases even encouraged by the government.
A young woman who had won a beauty contest in 1955, for instance, explained in an interview how she had managed to balance work and study: “I took a lot of Pervitin to fight off sleepiness and learn for good exams” (Última Hora, June 1955). On the following year the same newspaper wrote that Alvaro Lins, a well-known writer who had just been elected to the National Academy of Literature, consumed a lot of Pervitin to write his inaugural address; the newspaper adds a short explanatory notice: “Pervitin is not a drink, my dear reader, it is a little drug that we take when we need fend off sleepiness in order to work, or to write for one or two nights” (Última Hora, July 1956). None of these reports imply that using Pervitin to stay alert while studying or writing through the night was blameworthy.
Brazilian government itself encouraged the use of Pervitin among civil servants to ensure that the budget figures for 1956 would be delivered on time. The headlines of a newspaper read: “100 hours without sleeping for the new budget” (Última Hora, February 1956). According to the newspaper, five flasks of Pervitin had been consumed during the work. But, again, the article does not suggest that it was morally wrong to use drugs as a means of cognitive enhancement. Indeed, the employees were praised for their apparent sense of duty.
By mid-50’s the use of Pervitin had already become so widespread in Brazil that a journalist complained that coffee had fallen from grace among students: “Now it is the turn of Pervitin and other pharmaceutical products. There is hardly any school girl, or boy in short trousers that does not use and misuse this drug during exams”. The number of students taking Pervitin was so high that the author titled his article “The Pervitinic Youth” (Tribuna da Imprensa, June 1957). It is estimated that at that time about 60% of students were using Pervitin as a cognitive enhancer. This is far more than Ritalin and Provigil combined, if we consider the figures for the use of cognitive enhancers in some universities today.
It was not long before news of abuse, addiction, doping in sports and even deaths resulting from the use of Pervitin reached the Brazilian press. Then, in 1963 Pervitin became a prescription drug, and later it was banned altogether.
This brief, if rather unsystematic account of the use of Pervitin in Brazil suggests that there was a change in attitudes to cognitive enhancement between late 50’s and early 60’s. I suspect that, as the quest for cognitive enhancement became more and more associated with addiction, doping, and crime, cognitive enhancement itself came to be seen as an illicit pursuit, as an unacceptable form of social behavior. Of course there was then a strong case for the prohibition of Pervitin and other methamphetamine-based products. But, for a time, the search for cognitive enhancement does not seem to have been considered a problem in its own right.
Now, what if modafinil or some other drug proves effective without having the devastating consequences of Pervitin: would there still be reasons to restrict its widespread use? The questions related the societal implications of cognitive enhancement in the future are pressing ones. But I think they have to be discussed without the associations we still attach to the use of harmful drugs at large.
 P. Steinkamp. 2006. “Pervitin (metamphetamine) tests, use and misuse in the German Wehrmacht”. In W. W. Eckart (ed.) Man, Medicine, and the State: The Human Body as an Object of Government Sponsored Medical Research in the 20th Century, p. 61-72. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner. See also A. Ulrich. 2005. “The Nazi death machine: Hitler’s drugged soldiers”. In Der Spiegel Online.
 There is a very good documentary film by Sönke el Bitar and Gorch Pieken on the use of Pervitin in World War II: “Schlaflos im 2. Weltkrieg: Die pharmazeutische Wunderwaffe“.