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An Anxious History of Valium

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Published: 19 Nov 2013

What a drag it is getting old—or is it? Valium's heyday is long past, but it lives on as a cultural icon

"Mother needs something today to calm her down," goes the 1966 Rolling Stones hit "Mother's Little Helper." "And though she's not really ill, there's a little yellow pill."

On Nov. 15, that famous little pill—Valium—marked its 50th anniversary. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1963, F. Hoffmann-La Roche's drug, marketed to "reduce psychic tension," went on to become the Western world's most widely prescribed answer to anxiety—and the first drug to reach $1 billion in sales.

At the peak of Valium's popularity in 1978, Americans consumed more than two billion units stamped with the trademark "V." Valium was also one of the first pharmaceuticals to become a cultural icon. "It's a drug that has pretty successfully lived up to a lot of the hype that surrounded it," says Andrea Tone, a professor of the history of medicine at McGill and author of "The Age of Anxiety: A History of America's Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers."

Valium's development can be traced, at least indirectly, to the Nazis. After Germany threatened to occupy Switzerland in 1941, Roche, the Basel-based chemical and pharmaceutical company, transferred Leo Sternbach, a Jewish chemist, to the U.S. Sternbach helped the company set up its American headquarters in New Jersey and eventually created a new breed of drugs called benzodiazepines to help ease anxiety.

Valium's success sprang in part from an aggressive marketing campaign. One 1970 ad titled "Mrs. Raymond's pupils do a double-take" featured a fictional middle-aged teacher debilitated by "excessive psychic tension and associated depressive symptoms accompanying her menopause." Thanks to Valium, however, Mrs. R. was once again "trim and smartly dressed, the way she was when school began."

Another 1970 ad portrayed Jan ("35, single and psychoneurotic"), whose low self-esteem prevented her from finding a man "to measure up to her father." A series of snapshots span 15 years of Jan's failed relationships, culminating in a picture of a matronly woman standing alone on a cruise ship—the fate from which Valium might save her.

Read the full story in The Wall Street Journal.

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