Over at the blog for The Appendix: A new journal of narrative and experimental history, Benjamin Breen has written a fascinating post on historical discoveries of illicit drugs. Capitalizing on the success of Breaking Bad‘s final season (a show centered around the dealings of a cancer-diagnosed high school chemistry teacher-turned-meth cook), Breen notes that while “the invention of Breaking Bad‘s blue meth has become the stuff of television legend” very few people “know the true origin stories of illicit drugs.”
After briefly covering “the first academic paper on cannabis” (penned in 1689 by British scientist Robert Hooke, who noted that “there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter.”), Freud’s 1884 publication extolling the virtues of cocaine, and “Albert Hoffmann’s accidental discovery of acid,” Breen turns his attention to “the strange fact that methamphetamine was actually invented in 1890s Japan.” In 1893, Nagayoshi Nagai successfully synthesized meth by “isolat[ing] the stimulant ephedrine from Ephedra sinica, a plant long used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine.” For those interested in the whole story, I recommend clicking over and reading the entire post—it really is quite fascinating. But one throwaway line caught my attention and will almost certainly interest readers here. Describing ephedrine, Breen notes that it “is a mild stimulant, notable nowadays as an ingredient in shady weight-loss supplements and as one of the few drugs permitted to Mormons.”
Unfortunately (from a scholarly point of view, that is), it is not true. And the post he links to says as much. But the story behind this is pretty interesting in and of itself. As Brock Cheney, author of Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers, explains in the February 2009 post linked to by Breen, the conflation of tea made from the ephedra plant with that imbibed by Brigham Young and other Mormon pioneers is a common mistake:
I’ve been chasing after this elusive goal for quite some time, and I have yet to find any primary source (Brigham Young, or otherwise) identifying tea made from the ephedra plant that grows indigenous to Utah. I have found several other primary sources which show that Brigham Young and many other pioneer settlers drank a sort of tea made from herbs and spices, carrying the name of either “composition tea” or “hot pepper tea.” One source called this tea insipid, and another called it the “Mormon Highball.” I have found plenty of references to this tea (and also recipes), but not a single reference to … ephedra[.]
Cheney followed up that post with another a few months later worth reading, and unsurprisingly to anyone who reads Keepapitchinin, Ardis Parshall has also written about the “composition tea” preferred by Brigham Young. I am still left wondering, though, about the history of the name “Mormon Tea” as it applied to the ephedra plant—even the United States Department of Agriculture calls the plant by its nickname. When and where did the connection occur? And why, aside from the fact that the plant is native to the red rock deserts of southern Utah, did it stick? Edje, can you do some digging? This seems right up your alley.
I’m sure this all comes as something of a disappointment to you Breaking Bad fans who were hoping to enjoy next week’s episode with a hot cup of ephedra tea, but hopefully some of you found this historical footnote interesting, anyway. It’s not everyday that you find Mormons and Methamphetamine crossing paths.