Leo Sternbach

Inventor of Librium and Valium

Leo Sternbach was one of history's most prolific drug designers. He invented modern tranquillisers including Librium and Valium, a sleeping pill called Mogadon, and drugs for epilepsy and muscle spasms. He synthesised radically new molecules. He also synthesised the vitamin biotin and developed a drug that reduced bleeding during brain surgery.

He was primarily a chemist, who used classic scientific procedures, combined with doggedness, teamwork, serendipity and intuition. He worked for the Roche drug company for 33 years. From 1965 to 1972, Valium was the most-prescribed drug in the United States, and it was in the UK's top five. (It is now number 189 in the US medicinal hit parade.)

Librium, the first tranquilliser, was welcomed because it was less sedating than the existing phenothiazine drugs. Valium, which followed, was so popular that the Rolling Stones wrote a song, "Mother's Little Helper", about it. Later, there was a backlash against it, but now, 45 years later, Valium and closely related drugs are regarded as an indispensable short-term treatment for acute anxiety - the treatment of choice for alcohol withdrawal symptoms - as well as being used for pre-operative sedation and to relieve muscle spasms, including that of back pain.

In 1981, sales plummeted after a report that Valium promoted cancer-cell growth in a test-tube. This finding was not confirmed (if it were true, there would have been a cancer epidemic) and Valium is safe for cancer patients. The safeness of tranquillisers has prevented many deaths by suicide. Valium is listed as an essential drug by the World Health organisation and is safe for everyone except babies under six months, and some glaucoma patients.

Sternbach's tranquillisers were in a chemical class called benzodiazepines, and he had helped synthesise them while he was a postdoctoral student in Poland, 20 years earlier. Their biological activity was unknown. He derived 40 compounds from them, all of which proved biologically inert. Finally, he treated one of the derivatives with a substance called methylamine, labelled the white, crystalline substance Ro-0690 and put it on a shelf. Eighteen months later, in 1957, it was rediscovered and he sent it for screening. It was found to have sedative and sleep-inducing properties in mice, and was a muscle-relaxant in cats. When tried in agitated elderly patients it caused relaxation but made them unsteady on their feet, with slurred speech. When tried on psychiatric outpatients with neuroses, it cured their anxiety states without clouding consciousness or causing intellectual dysfunction. It was also remarkably safe.

Working on the same basic molecule as Librium, Sternbach came up with Valium in 1963, which was more potent but as clean of side-effects. Two years later he produced Serax, used to treat acute alcoholism, convulsions and muscle tensions.

The drugs he invented made millions, and Roche became the world's largest pharmaceutical company. Sternbach, however, was interested only in chemistry, not economics, and in benefiting humanity.

Leo Sternbach was born in the fashionable coastal resort of Abbazia in the dying days, and territory, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The town, once favoured by Franz Joseph, the last Austrian emperor, is now called Opatijo and is in Croatia. (Both names mean "Abbey".) Sternbach's father was Polish and his mother Hungarian. His father, a pharmacist, moved back to Poland, and Leo went to high school in Bielsko, and then to Jagiellonian University, Krakow, where he gained a master's degree in pharmacy in 1929 and a PhD in organic chemistry in 1931. His main work was developing potential dyes.

He remained there until 1937, followed by a few months in Vienna. Because of mounting anti-Semitism, he moved to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, working with some of the world's most distinguished chemists. In 1940 he joined Hoffmann-La Roche, and worked for them for the rest of his life. In 1941, with the possibility of a Nazi invasion, the company moved its entire Jewish staff to New Jersey, USA. He newly wed wife, Herta Kreutz, was Swiss but under Swiss law took on her husband's nationality. Roche arranged for him to have a Swiss passport, and they escaped to America via occupied France and Portugal. Herta was a Protestant and they had a civil wedding, followed by a church ceremony.

They settled in New Jersey in the summer of 1941, where Leo was group chief at the Roche research laboratory. He was subsequently promoted to senior group chief, section chief and, from 1966 to his official retirement in 1973, aged 65, director of medicinal chemistry. He continued to work in the office nearly every day until 2003, when he was 95 and moved to North Carolina to be near his son Daniel, who is a chemist with GlaxoSmithKlein.

As recently as 1964, drugs synthesised by him accounted for 28 per cent of the company's revenue. He held 230 patents, and earlier this year he was admitted to the US National Inventors Hall of Fame, run by the US Patent Office. He shared the inauguration ceremony with the inventors of colour film, photocopiers, genetic fingerprinting, gas masks, three-way traffic signals, the electric guitar, optical character recognition and plutonium.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit director Peter Jackson with his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
film
News
people
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright has won The Apprentice 2014
tvThe Apprentice 2014 final
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Receptionist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This law firm is seeking a happy, helpful and ...

The Jenrick Group: Production Supervisor

£26000 - £29000 per annum + Holidays & Pension: The Jenrick Group: Production ...

The Jenrick Group: Project Engineer

£33000 - £35000 per annum + Pension and holidays: The Jenrick Group: Project E...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Technician

£35200 per annum + Pension and holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Engine...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'