Leo H. Sternbach

Born: May 7, 1908 | Abbazia, AT
Died: Wednesday, September 28, 2005 | Chapel Hill, NC, US
Photograph of Leo H. Sternbach

Dr. Leo Sternbach, CHF Collections, gift of Dr. Sternbach

Leo H. Sternbach begins his oral history interview with a discussion of his family and childhood in Austria and Poland during the First World War. He enrolled in a PhD program in organic chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute. After beginning work with Hoffmann-La Roche in Basel, increasing pressure to leave Switzerland compelled him to immigrate to the United States, where he continued work with the company in Nutley, New Jersey. Sternbach recalls that he was instructed to terminate his study of benzodiazepines but continued the research unofficially, which led to his significant discoveries of Librium, Valium, and other related drugs.

The information listed below is current as of the date the transcript was finalized.

			

Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0043
No. of pages: 49
Minutes: 134

Interview Sessions

Tonja A. Koeppel
12 March 1986
F. Hoffman-La Roche AG, Nutley, New Jersey

Abstract of Interview

Leo H. Sternbach begins the interview with a discussion of his family and childhood in Austria and Poland. He describes his early education during the First World War as well as his experiences working in his father's pharmacy. After receiving his degree in pharmacy from Jagiellonian University in Cracow, he enrolled in a PhD program in organic chemistry. As a result of intensifying anti-Semitism, he left Poland and went to Vienna, where he worked with Pauli and Fränkel, and then to Zürich to work with Ruzicka at the Swiss Federal Institute. After beginning work with Hoffmann-La Roche in Basel and marrying Herta Kreuzer, increasing pressure to leave Switzerland compelled him to emigrate to the United States, where he continued work with the company in Nutley, New Jersey, and began a search for new tranquilizers. Sternbach recalls that he was instructed to terminate his study of benzodiazepines but continued the research unofficially, which led to his significant discoveries of Librium, Valium, and other related drugs. He concludes his interview with a brief summary of his accomplishments and his views on the present state of pharmaceutical research. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1929 Jagiellonian University MPharm Pharmacy
1931 Jagiellonian University PhD Organic Chemistry

Professional Experience

Jagiellonian University

1931 to 1937
Research Assistant with Professor K. Dziewonski

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1937 to 1940
Research Fellow with Professor L. Ruzicka

F. Hoffman-La Roche AG

1940 to 1941
Research Chemist (Basel, Switzerland)
1941 to 1959
Group Chief (Nutley, New Jersey)
1959 to 1965
Senior Group Chief (Nutley, New Jersey)
1965 to 1967
Section Chief (Nutley, New Jersey)
1966 to 1973
Director of Medicinal Chemistry (Nutley, New Jersey)
1973 to 1988
Consultant (Nutley, New Jersey)

Honors

Year(s) Award
1971

Honorary Doctor of Technical Sciences, Technical University, Vienna, Austria

1977

Outstanding Naturalized Citizen Award, Newark Chapter, Unico National

1978

Medicinal Chemistry Award, American Chemical Society, Division of Medicinal Chemistry

1979

Cecil Brown Lectureship, American Chemical Society, North Jersey Section

1979

Award for Creative Invention, American Chemical Society

1979

Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists

1982

John Scott Medal Award, Board of Directors of City Trusts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

1984

Charles W. Hartman Memorial Lecture, University of Mississippi

1984

Honorary Doctor of Science, Centenary College, Hackettstown, New Jersey

1984

Carl-Mannich-Medal, German Pharmaceutical Society

1986

Honorary Dr. phil. nat. h. c. , Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universtät, Frankfurt am Main

Table of Contents

Childhood
1

Born  in Abazzia, Austria. Multinational, multilingual family. Works in father's pharmacy. Attends elementary school during World War I. Italy occupies Abazzia during Gymnasium years. Moves to Villach where strong interest in chemistry develops. Uses windowsill for laboratory. Parents return to Poland; completes Gymnasium there.

Jagiellonian University in Cracow
7

Enrolls in pharmacy curriculum, including several chemistry courses. PhD program in organic chemistry with Professor Dziewonski. Thesis on thioindigo dyes. Loves crystallization. Laboratory conditions. Postdoctoral study on aromatic amines, pyrene and Friedel-Crafts reactions. Future prospects at university poor, urged to leave, because Jewish.

Eeliks Wislicki Foundation
12

Receives grant to work with (elder) Pauli in Vienna. Works on conductivity determinations, but real interest is organic chemistry. Goes to Fränkel part time for organic work but laboratory conditions and experiments in progress disappointing.

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH)
14

Research fellow under Ruzicka in Zürich. Studies diterpenes. Meets future wife. Enjoys skiing. Close relationship with Ruzicka.

Hoffmann-La Roche
19

Moves to Basel. Marries Herta Kreuzer. "Encouraged" to leave Switzerland. Emigrates to United States. Senior Chemist in Nutley, New Jersey. Works on syntheses of riboflavin, dosable arsenicals, biotin, biotinol. Seven patents in biotin field with Goldberg. Begins work with 1,4-benzodiazepines in search for new tranquilizers. Stops this work under Goldberg's instructions, but continues unofficially with Reeder while working on antibiotics. Success allows to resume official research on benzodiazepines, leading to discoveries of Librium, Valium, and other related tranquilizers and hypnotics. Discussion of animal testing. Effects of Valium. Sells patents to Hoffmann-La Roche with no regrets.

Leisure Activities
36

Enjoys skiing, travel. Frequent trips to Switzerland. Son also a chemist.

Awards and Honors
39

American Chemical Society Awards. Honorary doctorates. John Scott Medal. Numerous publications, discoveries, and patents.

Notes
42
Index
44
Appendix: Chronology of Ro 5-0690
50
Appendix: Valium
52

About the Interviewer

Tonja A. Koeppel

Tonja A. Koeppel received a master’s degree in chemistry from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 1944. Since then she has written about chemistry, done research, and taught college chemistry. Dr. Koeppel is also a historian of chemistry. In 1973 she earned a PhD degree in the history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania. She is especially interested in the development of organic chemistry in the 19th and early 20th centuries.