"Sad Pink Monkey Blues" by Hamilton Morris

It is unusual that an article in a mass-market magazine includes the names and even the structures of chemical compounds.  “Sad Pink Monkey Blues” not only does so, but within a month of its publication become the first six references in the Wikipedia article on amfonelic acid (AFA).  AFA is a psychotropic drug that also has antibiotic activity, and it is that property that led to its discovery.  Hamilton Morris (a regular contributor to VICE magazine) traces the remarkable history and current uses and abuse of AFA, beginning with the indicator methylene blue, familiar to many students of chemistry.  Methylene blue was discovered to taste awful, to cause one’s urine to turn blue, and to induce urinary pain and diarrhea, by a veterinary surgeon named W.E.A. Wyman who, in 1895, administered it to a dog and also to himself! Despite its undesirable side effects and its limited effectiveness, methylene blue was used as the principal anti-malarial drug through World War II. It was replaced by chloroquine, a synthetic drug related to the effective natural product quinine, which had been synthesized either in 1944 by R.B. Woodward’s group or in 2001 by Gilbert Stork depending on whom you believe. [See M. Jacobs,  2001, 79 (May 7), 5 for a description of this controversy.] In any case, quinine was not available in large quantities until much later.  While trying to improve the synthetic scheme for chloroquine, a chemist named George Lesher, working for the Sterling-Winthrop Research Institute in Rensselaer, New York made a derivative of one of the precursors, which wasn’t good for malaria but effectively killed gram-negative bacteria such as salmonella and cholera. The new compound, nalidixic acid, was quickly approved by the FDA and opened the door to a whole new class of antibiotics, the quinolones.  One of those turned out to be AFA, which was discovered to cause extraordinary increases in locomotive activity similar in many ways to amphetamine. Hamilton Morris goes on to describe the very sad story of how AFA led to the near-death of a Schering-Plough pharmacologist named Brian Marasca, who experimented on himself with AFA. An episode in which he became comatose led to his losing his job and his career in pharmacology. An attempt by a German chemist named Frederik Barth to capitalize on AFA’s documented psychotropic activity led to an even more tragic result for him. The drug is known not only to be addictive, but also to demand ever-increasing doses for a response, and in Barth’s case of self-administration, the lethal dose proved smaller than the effective one. Despite its dangers, amfonelic acid is now widely available in the grey market for drugs.

Publication information
Alt. Title: 

The experimental odyssey of a curious superstimulate

Pick Attribution: 

Hamilton Morris

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, September 30, 2015