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September 28: Mother’s Little Helper

Lawrence Bush
September 27, 2016
Leo Henryk Sternbach, a Croatian-born chemist who was the primary inventor of Valium, the most-prescribed drug in America between 1969 and 1982, and the entire class of benzodiazepine-based anti-anxiety drugs (Librium, Klonopin, etc.), died at 97 on this date in 2005. Sternbach escaped the deadly shadow of Nazism in 1941 when his employer, Hoffmann-La Roche, moved him to America. By the height of his career Sternbach held 241 patents and had turned the company into a pharmaceutical titan (2.3 billion doses of Valium were sold in its peak year, 1978). “Sternbach’s total profit on each drug was $1, handed over for signing away the patent rights,” writes Thomas H. Maugh II in the Los Angeles Times. “He did, however, receive a $10,000 prize that was then offered by the company for the discovery of drugs that were significantly profitable. That award was dropped, he said, ‘after I won it three or four times.’ ” Sternbach was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in the year of his death. “When Roche moved all its Jewish employees to the United States, Sternbach and his wife, Herta, traveled through Nazi-occupied France to Portugal, where they caught a ship to safety. The key document in their travels was a Swiss passport, which the Swiss government issued to some non-citizens and which did not list nationalities or religions.” --Thomas H. Maugh II

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.