TRENTON, N.J. — Leo Sternbach, the inventor of a revolutionary new class of tranquilizers that included Valium, considered the first blockbuster drug, has died at his Chapel Hill, N.C., home. He was 97.
Sternbach, an award-winning chemist who helped the Swiss drug conglomerate Roche Group build its U.S. headquarters in Nutley, N.J., after fleeing the Nazis during World War II, died after a short illness late Wednesday. His wife, sons and other relatives were at his side, according to the company.
An Austrian native who said he loved chemistry from his youth, Sternbach led development of more than a dozen important drugs during a six-decade career with Roche. His other breakthroughs include the sleeping pills Dalmane and Mogadon, Klonopin for epileptic seizures and Arfonad for limiting bleeding during brain surgery.
Valium was the country’s most prescribed drug from 1969 to 1982. Nicknamed “Mother’s Little Helper” after the Rolling Stones song, it was three times more potent than its predecessor, Librium, another member of the class of tranquilizers invented by Sternbach.
Roche sold nearly 2.3 billion Valium pills stamped with the trademark “V” at the drug’s 1978 peak.
“It gave you a feeling of well-being,” Sternbach told The Associated Press in a 2003 interview on the 40th anniversary of Valium. “Only when the sales figures came in, then I realized how important it was.”
Sternbach was born in 1908 in Abbazia, part of the Austrian Empire that today is Croatia, and earned a doctoral degree in organic chemistry at the University of Krakow in Poland. He began working at Roche’s Basel headquarters in 1940 and in June 1941 fled to the United States with his new bride and the rest of Roche’s Jewish scientists.
He and his wife, Herta, settled in Montclair, near Roche’s U.S. operations, called Hoffman-La Roche, raised two sons and lived there until 2003, when they moved to North Carolina, where son Daniel works as a chemist for GlaxoSmithKline.
Named one of the 25 most influential Americans of the 20th century by U.S. News & World Report, Sternbach’s credits include 241 patents, 122 publications, honorary degrees and other awards.
As recently as 1994, Roche products for which Sternbach held patents brought in more than one-quarter of the company’s worldwide pharmaceutical revenues.
Besides his wife and son Daniel, Sternbach is survived by his other son, Michael, and five grandchildren.
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