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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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: Senior Solution Architect - Contract

£500 - £600 per day: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Solution Architect is requir...

360 Resourcing Solutions: Export Sales Coordinator

£18k - 20k per year: 360 Resourcing Solutions: ROLE: Export Sales Coordinato...

Recruitment Genius: B2B Telesales Executive - OTE £35,000+

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The largest developer of mobile...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£22500 - £27000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Since our inception in 1986, STh...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue