If there were to be a title of The Man Who Calmed the World to be conferred on any man or woman on the planet, Leo Sternbach would be that person. Because it was Leo Sternbach who invented Benzodiazepines, the most widely used calming drugs (anxiolytics). When ordered to find a compound just as good as or better than Miltown (Meprobamate) of Wallace Laboratories, which was a popular drug for calming the agitated patients, Sternbach thought that it would be a dull job to tinker an existing product and find just enough differences to get round Wallace’s patent.
Leo H. Sternbach was born in Abbazia, Austria on May 7, 1908. He spent his childhood in Austria and Poland. He joined Hoffman-La Roche in 1940 at Basel, Switzerland. Fearful of Nazi invasion, Hoffman-La Roche shipped its Jewish scientists, including Leo Sternbach, from Switzerland to the United States. He retired from Roche in 1973 as Director of Medicinal Chemistry and was retained as a consultant for almost his entire life. Among the many distinctions he had achieved the more prominent ones are:
- Induction into New Jersey Inventor’s Hall of Fame
- Induction into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame
- Induction into the Medicinal Chemistry’s Hall of Fame
Sternbach loved chemistry with a passion and wanted to find out something that is significantly better. He tested many compounds and came out with Librium (Chlordiazepoxide), which was approved in 1960. Three years later he developed a simpler version, several times stronger and called it Valium (Diazepam). Valium, which was approved in 1963 by the US FDA became astonishingly popular. It was the most prescribed drug in America between 1969 and 1982. In its peak year, 1978, over 2.3 billion Valium tablets went down American throats. Rolling Stones, the famous rock band sang about Valium as Mother’s Little Helper.
There was more to Sternbach’s research than tranquilizers. He also discovered Klonopin (Clonazepam) for epilepsy. He was a prolific inventor with 241 patents to his credit. His discoveries helped to turn Hoffman-La Roche into a giant of the pharmaceutical industry. At one point his inventions accounted for over 40 percent of the total sales of Roche. For all the great research he had done, he got himself a dollar for each discovery (paid for reassigning the patent rights). He also won a prize of $10,000 for a profit-making invention three times, after which the company stopped that reward. He had no great attraction for money for all his ambitions were only concerned with chemistry. He went to the office until he was 95, just to keep up with what was going on.
Sternbach died in 2005 when he was 97 years, but his influence on medicinal chemistry and his inventions live on.