Great drugs of the twentieth century – the Barbiturates – 1912.


On St Barbara’s Day, December 6, 1864, German chemist Adolf von Baeyer made a new compound derived from urea and malonic acid extracted from apples.  He called it Barbituric acid, after the Saint.

Alfred von Baeyer

In those days, chemists had a simple way of testing a new drug – they took it themselves. The story goes that Baeyer did take barbituric acid himself. To his good fortune, barbituric acid turned to be an inactive compound.

Although barbituric acid was itself inactive, chemists found that it was a good starting molecule for making new drugs.  One day in 1903, chemists, Emil Fischer and Joseph von Mering, found that one of these new compounds, diethylbarbituric acid, could easily put people to sleep.

Joseph von Mering named this sleep-maker as ‘Veronal’, after the Italian city of Verona.veronal

Thus began the age of the Barbiturates.

After Veronal, chemists made many new barbiturates. Phenobarbital, better known by its brand name Luminal, became the first popular sedative.  Phenobarbital was found to be relatively safe in managing chronic insomnia, its sedative effects could be reversed and it had another very welcome property – it could control epileptic seizures.  It was, in effect. the first anticonvulsant.

valley-of-the-dolls1Phenobarbital was the forerunner of other barbiturates like Nembutal, Amytal, Pentothal and Seconal. The barbiturates became the sedatives of choice across the developed world and even found their way into fiction and popular literature. (Remember ‘Valley of the Dolls’, the controversial novel by Jacqueline Susann?)

The barbiturates held sway for fifty years before being replaced by the Benzodiazepines.  Phenobarb is still used in modern practice for epilepsy.

Adolph von Baeyer, the man who made first made barbituric acid, did a couple of things more – he founded a company called the Bayer Chemical Co (the same company that first made Aspirin) and he picked up a Nobel in Chemistry in 1905.

To be continued …


2 thoughts on “Great drugs of the twentieth century – the Barbiturates – 1912.

    1. Thank you, Bala! I am an MPharm by qualification, and I’ve been associated with the pharma industry since 30 years. Thought I’d write a series of articles about my own industry. Many more such articles to come! Cheers … Srini.


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