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Leo Sternbach - the Father of Mother's Little Helpers

December 27, 1999

Dr Leo Sternbach

The "Age of Anxiety" was in full swing, but psychoactive relief from life's little stresses was in short supply. Barbiturates like phenobarbital had been dismissed as addictive and potentially lethal. Miltown, the top tranquilizer of the 1950s, caused drowsiness and was toxic in high doses. Leo Sternbach, a Polish chemist who fled the Nazis in 1941, knew he could build a better chill pill.

While working at Hoffmann-La Roche, a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company, he fiddled with compounds he had cast aside 20 years earlier. One, slugged Ro-5-0690, sedated humans with few side effects; La Roche called it Librium, and it was a hit among the anxiety ridden.

But Sternbach's most celebrated - and, ultimately, vilified - masterpiece debuted three years later, in 1963. Synthesized from a simplified version of the Librium molecule, the drug was five to 10 times stronger than its predecessor

Playing off past success, the La Roche marketing department christened its new product Valium, a name derived from the word valere, Latin for "being strong." It was an odd choice for a drug that relaxed muscles and turned even the most tightly wound into mellow yogis.

The drug was known by an assortment of clever handles. When its consumption became standard among jet-setting corporate types, it was nicknamed "Executive Excedrin." The pills were dubbed "dolls" in Jacqueline Susann's 1966 novel Valley of the Dolls, a tale of ambitious girls medicating themselves to cope with New York City's cruelties. A song on the 1967 Rolling Stones album Flowers was entitled "Mother's Little Helper," a tongue-in-cheek ode to a housewife coping with bratty kids and a demanding husband, thanks to Valium: "She goes running for the shelter / Of a mother's little helper / And it helps her on her way / Gets her through her busy day."

By the late 1970s, millions of anxious Americans regularly sprinted for that soothing shelter. In 1978, nearly 2.3 billion of the tablets stamped with the trademark "V" were ingested.

It was the nation's most prescribed drug between 1969 and 1982, earning La Roche $600 million a year at its peak. Everyone seemed to reach for a "doll" from time to time. "The definition of a Valium addict," joked Milton Berle, "is a patient who takes more Valium than his doctor."

But Americans are notoriously suspicious of drugs that make them feel too good, an attitude that psychiatrist Gerald Klerman termed "pharmacological Calvinism" in 1970. As early as 1967, Stanley Yolles, then the director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., fretted over the pill's ambition-thwarting potential.

"To what extent would Western culture be altered by widespread use of tranquilizers?" he wondered. "Would Yankee initiative disappear?" As Valium became a regular addition to the family medicine cabinet, worries surfaced that prescription-happy doctors were creating a nation of addicts - perhaps as many as 10 million, by one estimate.

In her 1979 memoir, I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can, television producer Barbara Gordon recounted how quitting Valium cold turkey landed her in an insane asylum. Horrified, the Senate health subcommittee held hearings on tranquilizer addiction, at which one doctor compared Sternbach's concoction to heroin.

Wonder drugs. No longer dispensed like candy, Valium plummeted down the sales chart - it is the 189th-most prescribed drug in the United States. As part of the backlash, the former wonder drug became a convenient scapegoat for chronic malaise or boorish behavior.

Admitting to the addiction became the rage among celebrities, as Elizabeth Taylor confessed to a strict diet of Valium and Jack Daniels, and Tammy Faye Bakker acknowledged a fondness for a Valium-and-nasal-spray cocktail. And Ronald Reagan's onetime adviser Michael Deaver, in hot water for lying to a federal grand jury, attributed his perjury to a Valium-induced haze.

The flap over Valium would be repeated again and again, as psychoactive drugs became more powerful and prevalent. Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, and other anti-depressants were initially welcomed as panaceas for the doldrums, the perfect way to put the blues-afflicted back on track toward satisfying social lives and workplace productivity.

When everyone and his grandmother started joining the Prozac nation, however, wags and pundits derided the pills as personality-squashing crutches. Ritalin was at first hailed as the savior of hyperactive children, the godsend that would turn rambunctious brats into ace students. But the drug was soon scorned as a misused quick fix, a latter-day version of Aldous Huxley's "soma," turning a whole generation into overmedicated zombies. Tinkering with the brain is controversial business in a nation where feeling good thanks to pills or powders is often equated with moral weakness.

Sternbach never understood the fuss. Now 91, he retired in 1973 with over 230 patents to his name; La Roche paid him a piddling $10,000 a year for 10 years to reward him for Valium.

But Sternbach professes indifference to his lack of millions; he is satisfied believing that, despite the naysayers, his invention did some good. When the pill turned 35 last year, he said: "Not enough people kept in mind the suicides that were averted and the marriages that were saved because of this drug." Still, he doesn't like popping "mother's little helper" himself - it makes him feel a tad depressed.

Benzodiazepines and your patients: a management programme, Roche Products Ltd, ca. 1990.

Valium Advertisements: 1965 · 1981 · 1993

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