Auden, Sartre, Graham Greene, Ayn Rand: They loved amphetamines.

What do Auden, Sartre, and Ayn Rand have in common? Amphetamines.

Coffee has such a beneficial effect on creative activity that it should be no surprise that many artists have turned to stronger stimulants in search of bigger and more prolonged boosts. Indeed, amphetamines have their own semidistinguished artistic heritage, particularly among a swath of 20th-century writers.

The poet W.H. Auden is probably the most famous example. He took a dose of Benzedrine (a brand name of amphetamine introduced in the United States in 1933) each morning the way many people take a daily multivitamin. At night, he used Seconal or another sedative to get to sleep. He continued this routine—“the chemical life,” he called it—for 20 years, until the efficacy of the pills finally wore off. Auden regarded amphetamines as one of the “labor-saving devices” in the “mental kitchen,” alongside alcohol, coffee, and tobacco—although he was well aware that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”

Graham Greene had a similarly pragmatic approach to amphetamines. In 1939, while laboring on what he was certain would be his greatest novel, The Power and the Glory, Greene decided to also write one of his “entertainments”—melodramatic thrillers that lacked artistry but that he knew would make money. He worked on both books simultaneously, devoting his mornings to the thriller The Confidential Agent and his afternoons to The Power and the Glory. To keep it up, he took Benzedrine tablets twice daily, one upon waking and the other at midday. As a result he was able to write 2,000 words in the mornings alone, as opposed to his usual 500. After only six weeks, The Confidential Agent was completed and on its way to being published. (The Power and the Glory took four more months.)

Greene soon stopped taking the drug; not all writers had such self-control. In 1942 Ayn Rand took up Benzedrine to help her finish her novel, The Fountainhead.* She had spent years planning and composing the first third of the novel; over the next 12 months, thanks to the new pills, she averaged a chapter a week. But the drug quickly became a crutch. Rand would continue to use amphetamines for the next three decades, even as her overuse led to mood swings, irritability, emotional outbursts, and paranoia—traits Rand was susceptible to even without drugs.

Jean-Paul Sartre was similarly dependent. In the 1950s, already exhausted from too much work on too little sleep—plus too much wine and cigarettes—the philosopher turned to Corydrane, a mix of amphetamine and aspirin then fashionable among Parisian students, intellectuals, and artists. The prescribed dose was one or two tablets in the morning and at noon. Sartre took 20 a day, beginning with his morning coffee, and slowly chewed one pill after another as he worked. For each tablet, he could produce a page or two of his second major philosophical work, The Critique of Dialectical Reason.

But perhaps the most notable case of amphetamine-fueled intellectual activity is Paul Erdös, one of the most brilliant and prolific mathematicians of the 20th century. As Paul Hoffman documents in The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, Erdös was a fanatic workaholic who routinely put in 19-hour days, sleeping only a few hours a night. He owed his phenomenal stamina to espresso shots, caffeine tablets, and amphetamines—he took 10 to 20 milligrams of Benzedrine or Ritalin daily. Worried about his drug use, a friend once bet Erdös that he wouldn’t be able to give up amphetamines for a month. Erdös took the bet, and succeeded in going cold turkey for 30 days. When he came to collect his money, he told his friend, “You’ve showed me I’m not an addict. But I didn’t get any work done. I’d get up in the morning and stare at a blank piece of paper. I’d have no ideas, just like an ordinary person. You’ve set mathematics back a month.” After the bet, Erdös promptly resumed his amphetamine habit.

Correction, April 22, 2013: This entry originally misstated that The Fountainhead was Ayn Rand’s debut novel. (Return to the corrected sentence.)