The 1968 Exhibit: "The Dangerous Diet Pills," LIFE magazine, January 26, 1968

In one of its first issues of the new year in 1968, LIFE magazine tackled one of the day's most widely discussed issues:  America's "drug problem." But here--for a change--the narrative about drug abuse was not about hippies going on "acid trips," but about co-eds and housewives popping diet pills.  And they were doing so armed with prescriptions from doctors.

life-drugs"Filling-station operations" dispensing speed

The drugs--mostly some form of amphetamines, or "speed"--were not contraband, and did not involve shady cartels or exotic locales.  They were dispensed by white-coated, licensed, mostly male doctors to -- at the time-- most female "patients."  LIFE reported that the FDA estimated that there were 5,000 to 7,000 "fat doctors" working in the U.S. at that time.  Most of them were "osteopaths" (not M.D.'s), but maybe a third were board-certified medical doctors.  Many of them, LIFE reported, "run filling-station, cash-and-carry operations, see 100 patients or so a day, give only cursory physical exams or none at all, and carelessly send off their 'customers' with sacks of potent--and possibly deadly--pills."  The longest feature in the magazine  was the report by "slender LIFE reporter" Susanna McBee (5'5", 125 pounds), who visited ten "fat doctors" in various parts of the country to discuss her concerns about her weight, and was given diet pills by "every last one of them-- a 'haul' of 1,479 pills."  Another article documented the collusion of pharmaceutical companies bent on pushing their "weight-control products" with greedy and unethical doctors, some of were said to be making $1 million dollars a year (!)

Who was getting fat in 1968--and why?

The LIFE series--in focusing on unethical medical practices and the "industry"--missed the larger contours of this phenomenon, which perhaps we can see clearly now only with hindsight.  The increasing willingness of people to place their trust in "science" (especially in the form of little rainbow-colored pills); the spiking social/pop cultural pressure on women to be "slim" (the favored word of the day); the increased affluence and leisure time--much of it spent sitting on couches watching television--which led almost inevitably to more eating and drinking by both men and women.

But amidst so much else that was happening in 1968, it is amazing how clearly diets and dieting stand out as cultural obsessions that year.

Diet books:  A banner year in 1968

A glance at Publisher's Weekly non-fiction bestseller list for 1968 -- and "Covering 1968" has been there before-- reveals a couple of remarkable trends:  a relatively new vogue for poetry (well, at least poetry written by the warm and sensitive Rod McKuen, who had three books on the list that year), and the popularity of diet books.  "Popularity" is an understatement:  three of the top ten bestsellers were diet books, a phenomenon unmatched before or since.  (In recent years, the New York Times Book Review and other lists have begun separating out cookbooks, diet books, and other advice manuals from general non-fiction, making comparisons harder.)  Cookbooks--as opposed to diet books--had been big sellers consistently for years.  In fact the number-one book that year was the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.  The top diet books of the year were The Doctor's Quick Weight Loss Diet, by Erwin Stillman, which popularized the "Stillman water diet;" the Weight Watcher's Cookbook; and Better Homes and Gardens Eat and Stay Slim (BHG seems to have figured out how to do this; the year before, their Fantastic Ways with Chicken was tied with Phyllis Diller's Marriage Manual for tenth place.)

More on those cookbooks and dieting later-- It would be great to hear thoughts from readers!