Great Drugs of the 20th Century – the Chill Pill – 1963.


monroe death
Marilyn Monroe – victim of barbiturate poisoning.

By the 1950’s, doctors were disillusioned with the barbiturate sedatives.  There were far too many cases of barbiturate abuse, accidental deaths and suicides.  The challenge was on for safer sedatives.

In 1955, Dr. Leo Sternbach, an organic chemist with Hoffman-LaRoche at Nutley, New Jersey, took up the challenge.  For two years, Sternbach made one molecule after another in his lab and tested each of them for sedative activity. Not one of them worked. Finally, in 1957, the company told him to ‘stop these foolish things and go back to more useful work.’

Sternback decided to have his lab cleared out and move on to other research. One of his assistants came across a white, crystalline powder that Sternbach had made many months before and code-named as Ro 5-0690. 

Sternbach decided to test this last molecule and sent it to his colleague Dr Lowell Randall, head of the pharmacology section, for testing on mice. This one made all the mice come tumbling down. Leo Sternbach had made the first Benzodiazepine. Roche patented it in 1958 as chlordiazepoxide, and after approval from the US FDA, introduced it under the brand name Librium in 1960.

Along with fellow chemist, Earl Reeder, Sternbach eventually developed a more powerful benzodiazepine called Diazepam, that was launched by Roche in 1963 as Valium.

The name Valium is derived from the Latin phrase Valeo Valui Valiturus, and that means be strong, have power and be well.

Valium quickly became the world’s favorite bedtime story, and one of the world’s most popular pharmaceutical products.

After Valium, Roche and other companies quickly introduced several other benzodiazepines, like alprazolam, nitrazepam, flurazepam, midazolam and temazepam.

There are about 40 different benzodiazepines available today. Alprazolam, better known in the US by its brand name Xanax (Upjohn Pharmaceuticals), is currently the leading benzodiazepine.

Diazepam is still widely prescribed for insomnia and anxiety disorders.  Unlike the older barbiturates, benzo’s are reasonably safe drugs with a high therapeutic index – when used correctly and when used strictly under medical supervision.

Benzodiazepines are habit-forming drugs, with the potential to cause physical dependence, even at normal therapeutic doses. And they should never, ever be taken with alcohol. sternbach5

Leo Sternbach didn’t get a Nobel for putting the world to sleep and he didn’t make money from his discovery. But he was a happy man all the same, and lived up to the age of 97.

He lived that long, one would suppose, because he slept well every night – although he never took Valium himself!

To be continued …


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