Nagai Nagayoshi, the first man to create meth, began his life in Tokushima Prefecture, a place that today farms sweet potatoes and strawberries, just to the west of Osaka. When he was born in 1845, the military government of the Tokugawa shogunate had presided over Japan's feudal system for more than two centuries. But the political system that had held in place for so long was changing. By 1868, when Nagai was 23, the shogunate had fallen, the Meiji Emperor had restored imperial rule, a democratic government of sorts was formed, and Japan had stepped back from its isolationism.
Nagai had grown up as a member of the elite, the oldest child of a well-off family, which had served Tokushima Prefecture for years as doctors versed in traditional, herbal medicine. In 1871, when the new Meiji government sent a handful of promising young scholars to study abroad, Nagai was one of them. He was headed to Berlin, where he intended to study medicine.
Nagai would spend twelve years in Germany, and after hearing a lecture by the German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann, he changed his academic plan. He would be a chemist too, and he would become close with Hofmann. By the time he returned to Tokyo, in 1883, Nagai was a Catholic, the husband of German woman and a newly minted professor of pharmacology.
He began, in his new role, applying the tools of chemistry that he had learned in Europe to the traditional Japanese and Chinese medicine his family had studied for years. One of those remedies was ma huang, a bushy, evergreen plant that grows in Central Asia and was used to treat simple complaints—colds, headaches, congestion. Nagai discovered, according to Sumitomo Dainippon Pharma, a drug company established in 1885, "some crystalline material recognizable to the naked eye coexisting in the blackish brown essence extracted from wild ma huang." He started studying its chemical structure and soon isolated the compound ephedrine.
Nagai and his students kept tinkering with the ephedrine, and within the next decade, Nagai had used it to synthesize methamphetamine. In 1919, a student of his, Akira Ogata, figured out how to more simply manufacture the same compound in crystallized form. By the 1930s, its properties as a stimulant were well known. The Japanese chemists had not patented their work, though, and in World War II, armies on all sides of the war used methamphetamine to keep their soldiers alert. In Methland, Nick Reding reports:
Japanese, American, British, and German soldiers were all given methamphetamine pills to stay awake, to stay focused, and to perform under the extreme duress of war. Methedrine…was a part of every American airman's preflight kit. Three enormous plants in Japan produced an estimate one billion Hiropon pills between 1938 and 1945….[T]he German pharmaceutical companies Temmler and Knoll in only four months, between April and July 1940, manufactured thirty-five million methamphetamine tablets, all of which were shipped to the Nazi army and air corps.
Nagai died in 1929, and therefore never knew that the herbal remedies that his family of traditional doctors had used would kick off an epidemic of drug abuse across the world.