October 02, 2005

Mother's little helper rests at 97

If you plan to drive within the hour, you cannot toast Leo Sternbach, but for his best-known work I am grateful: he is the chemist who invented Valium, precursor of the little blue pill (and I don't mean Viagra) that helps keep me calm and functioning today.

Why no toast? Read the contraindications on the label: something to do with the possibility of drowsiness, or, even without alcohol, the operating dangerous machinery clause. I, however, have finished renting automobiles for the year, and stand in no danger of getting behind the wheel. But I will be cautious: one drink will do me.

According to the AP:

"[Valium] gave you a feeling of well-being," Sternbach told The Associated Press in a 2003 interview on the 40th anniversary of Valium. "Only when the sales figures came in, then I realized how important it was."

Sternbach was born in 1908 in Abbazia, part of the Austrian Empire that today is Croatia, and earned a doctoral degree in organic chemistry at the University of Krakow in Poland. He began working at Roche's Basel headquarters in 1940 and in June 1941 fled to the United States with his new bride and the rest of Roche's Jewish scientists.

He and his wife, Herta, settled in Montclair, near Roche's U.S. operations, called Hoffman-La Roche, raised two sons and lived there until 2003, when they moved to North Carolina, where son Daniel works as a chemist for GlaxoSmithKline.

Named one of the 25 most influential Americans of the 20th century by U.S. News & World Report, Sternbach's credits include 241 patents, 122 publications, honorary degrees and other awards.

Valium was to the 1960s what Miltown was to the 1950s what Luminol was to the 1940s (see psychopharmaceutical history 101, one of alice's hobbies). In the 1970s and 1980s, more subtle variations on the benzodiazapine theme were cultivated. These days the PSAs scream that all drugs are evil; without pharmaceuticals, alice would not be here today.

Here's to you, Leo Sternbach.


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