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The Big Chill-Out

Leo Sternbach

Leo Sternbach

By Bret McCabe | Posted 12/28/2005

Even in this world where everything is somehow connected, few things cut a straight cultural path from Elizabeth Taylor to Damien Hirst. That distinction belongs exclusively to an innocuous little pill. En route, it appears in the title or lyrics to songs from D12, the Kinks, Drive-By Truckers, Neil Young, Hawkwind, Franz Ferdinand, Phish, Salt N Pepa, Queens of the Stone Age, Bad Religion, Elvis Costello, the Fall, Lou Reed, and, most infamously, the Rolling Stones, to name a few. It, and its effects, have inspired writers from Jacqueline Susann (her 1966 scorcher Valley of the Dolls) to Barbara Gordon (her 1979 memoir I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can) to Augusten Burroughs. Its cadre of famous fans include Elvis Presley, Rodney Dangerfield, and Tammy Faye Baker. Ronald Reagan adviser Michael Deaver alleged it caused him to perjure himself before a grand jury. Taylor admitted to living—such as it was—on a diet of it and Jack Daniel’s.

This little pill—sometimes white, sometimes blue—has accrued such a potent cultural valence that all British artist Hirst had to do was name his 2000 series of prints after it to suspend its forced-happiness cultural baggage on the wall like an embalmed horse. The little pill is Valium, and the man who created it, who passed away Sept. 28 at age 97, was a mild-mannered chemist who looked every bit the stereotypical, white-coated scientist—board-straight posture, a tangle of white hair lining his thin head, thick glasses. And his developments in one class of drugs helped create a pharmaceutical giant.

Dr. Leo Henryk Sternbach was born in 1908 in Abazzia, in what is now Croatia. He earned his chemistry doctorate at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and worked for F. Hoffman-La Roche’s labs in Basel, Switzerland, before immigrating to the United States in 1941 with scores of other Eastern European Jewish scientists fleeing the Nazis. He settled near the Hoffman-La Roche laboratories in Nutley, N.J., and remained there for most of his life.

In the 1950s Sternbach primarily concerned himself with the pharmacology of benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that affect the central nervous system that can be used as tranquilizers, anti-convulsants, hypnotics, and anti-cholinergics. The products that came out of this research—Mogadon, Limbitrol, Rohypnol, among them—gave Roche, which previously trafficked primarily in vitamins, a corner on the psychotropics market.

The best know of these 1950s creations is the 1,4-benzodiazepine derivative Diazepam. Branded Valium and introduced in 1963, it went on to become the most prescribed drug from 1969 to ’82, moving as many as 2.3 billion tablets a year in the pill-popping 1970s. Sternbach held more than 200 patents—Librium and Klonopin for seizures, sleeping pills Dalmane and Mogadon. According to the Wall Street Journal, 12 of Sternbach’s patents made Roche $10 billion over 40 years, and his creations accounted for more than 40 percent of the company’s profits during the Valium-boom 1970s—and as much as 28 percent as recently as 1994, according to Forbes.

Outside board rooms and history of science classrooms Sternbach will forever be remembered as the father of the first mental-health prescription to seep into the public consciousness. Valium—an anti-anxiety agent that was eventually used just to take the edge off of everyday stress—paved the way for widespread anti-depressant and anti-anxiety maintenance meds such as Zoloft, Ritalin, Xanax, Paxil, etc. Quite simply, no Valium, no Prozac nation. No other specific chemical achievement exerts such cultural pull—when was the last time you heard a rock band mine the perils of penicillin?—and kudos to a scientist who didn’t care about such peripheral distractions one bit. “Not enough people kept in mind the suicides that were averted and the marriages that were saved because of this drug,” he told US News and World Report when it named him one of the 25 most influential Americans of the 20th century in 1999. “What’s important is that you love the work you do.”

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