Inventor of Valium, Once the Most Often Prescribed Drug, Dies

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 1, 2005

Leo Sternbach, 97, who created Valium, the nation's most-prescribed drug during the 1970s, until critics claimed it was overused and newer drugs replaced it, died Sept. 28 at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Sternbach became a celebrated figure in research science for his creation of a group of chemicals that soothed anxious, irritated and agitated executives and housewives. Valium topped the list of most-common pharmaceuticals from 1969 to 1982, with nearly 2.3 billion pills passing into consumers' hands during its peak sales year of 1978.

Nicknamed "Mother's Little Helper" and "Executive Excedrin," Valium was a true cultural phenomenon. The Rolling Stones sang: "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." Novelist Jacqueline Susann called the pills "dolls" in her 1966 novel "Valley of the Dolls." In a 1979 memoir, "I'm Dancing as Fast as I Can," television producer-author Barbara Gordon said quitting Valium cold turkey landed her in an insane asylum.

Horrified, a Senate health subcommittee held hearings on tranquilizer addiction in 1979.

Sternbach, who had tested the basic chemical compound on himself while developing it, said he didn't use Valium because it made him depressed. But neither did he consider its creation a curse, once saying that everything can be abused.

"Not enough people kept in mind the suicides that were averted and the marriages that were saved because of this drug," he told U.S. News & World Report in 1999.

Valium was a convenient substitute for alcohol, one researcher noted, because it didn't taste bad, it didn't smell and it was easy to carry. It is almost impossible to die from it, unless it's mixed with alcohol or other drugs. Used in small doses and for a limited period, it is an effective muscle relaxant, but many patients also say that its very success as a reducer of pain made it psychologically addictive.

Its popularity presaged such tricyclic antidepressants as Elavil and Nardil in the 1980s, followed by the class of drugs that includes Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil.

Celebrities almost tripped over themselves admitting to an addiction to it: Elizabeth Taylor confessed to a strict diet of Valium and Jack Daniel's; comedian Rodney Dangerfield daily swallowed it along with 136 other pills; and Ronald Reagan adviser Michael Deaver, in hot water for lying to a federal grand jury, attributed his perjury to a Valium-induced haze. Tammy Faye Bakker acknowledged a fondness for a Valium-and-nasal spray cocktail. Feminists attacked it as a symbol of physicians' insensitivity to women's medical complaints.

Sternbach's independent streak allowed him to make his discoveries. As a youth in his native Abbazia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he scavenged gunpowder from unexploded World War I shells and swiped chemicals from his father's pharmacy to make fireworks.

With a doctoral degree in organic chemistry from the University of Krakow, he went to work for Hoffmann-LaRoche in Switzerland and came to the United States in 1941, when all the company's Jewish scientists fled Europe at the beginning of World War II. At LaRoche's research facility in Nutley, N.J., he spent two years in the mid-1950s trying, without success, to duplicate Wallace Laboratories' new Miltown tranquilizer. His bosses urged him to forget tranquilizers and move on to antibiotics.

He disregarded the directive, and, tinkering with an abandoned experiment, he reworked the compound a bit and created chlordiazepoxide. It became known as Librium, a mild drug far less likely to cause sleepiness or addiction than anything then on the market as a tranquilizer.

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