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Happy Pills in America

From Miltown to Prozac

David Herzberg

Publication Year: 2010

Valium. Paxil. Prozac. Prescribed by the millions each year, these medications have been hailed as wonder drugs and vilified as numbing and addictive crutches. Where did this “blockbuster drug” phenomenon come from? What factors led to the mass acceptance of tranquilizers and antidepressants? And how has their widespread use affected American culture? David Herzberg addresses these questions by tracing the rise of psychiatric medicines, from Miltown in the 1950s to Valium in the 1970s to Prozac in the 1990s. The result is more than a story of doctors and patients. From bare-knuckled marketing campaigns to political activism by feminists and antidrug warriors, the fate of psychopharmacology has been intimately wrapped up in the broader currents of modern American history. Beginning with the emergence of a medical marketplace for psychoactive drugs in the postwar consumer culture, Herzberg traces how “happy pills” became embroiled in Cold War gender battles and the explosive politics of the “war against drugs”—and how feminists brought the two issues together in a dramatic campaign against Valium addiction in the 1970s. A final look at antidepressants shows that even the Prozac phenomenon owed as much to commerce and culture as to scientific wizardry. With a barrage of “ask your doctor about” advertisements competing for attention with shocking news of drug company malfeasance, Happy Pills is an invaluable look at how the commercialization of medicine has transformed American culture since the end of World War II.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

A great many people helped make this book possible. My thanks begin where the project did: with Paul Boyer, a generous mentor who advised students to ‘‘follow their bliss’’ and look for history in unexpected places, even if it took them away from his own areas of expertise (a difficult feat given his many interests). Judy Leavitt’s warmth and excellent skepticism helped orient me in the history ...

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Introduction. Medicine, Commerce, and Culture

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pp. 1-14

In 2001 the GlaxoSmithKline Group of Companies announced good news for the ‘‘10 million people who live with excessive uncontrollable worry, anxiety, tension, irritability, restlessness and sleep disturbances’’: relief, in the form of Paxil, an antidepressant, was at hand. Advertising in Newsweek, the pharmaceutical giant advised ‘‘chronic anxiety’’ sufferers to ‘‘talk to your doctor about non-habit-forming Paxil today. ...

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1 Blockbuster Drugs in the Age of Anxiety

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pp. 15-46

By all accounts, the 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of Freud in American medicine and culture. Psychoanalysts chaired the vast majority of prestigious medical school psychiatry departments, where most students learned from psychoanalytically oriented textbooks and curricula. The American Psychiatric Association too was dominated by analysts, and in 1952 the organization joined with the Association of American Medical Colleges in advocating ...

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2 Listening to Miltown

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pp. 47-82

Whatever the catchy name, the minor tranquilizers were everywhere in the popular media in the years after their discovery. Astounding new wonder drugs seemed to promise unprecedented control over mind and emotion, heralding radical changes in the nation’s psychic landscape. Miltown’s name may no longer be remembered, but during its moment in the sun it served ...

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3 Wonder Drugs and Drug Wars

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pp. 83-121

Frederick Lemere, a psychiatrist at the University of Washington, was worried. He had been an early enthusiast of Miltown, prescribing it for over six hundred patients in 1955. His glowing report on the medication —one of the earliest to be published—concluded that it was ‘‘the drug of choice for the relief of tension, anxiety, and insomnia.’’1 By 1956, however, he had noticed a disturbing ...

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4 The Valium Panic

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pp. 122-149

As the article soon made clear, the ‘‘smartly dressed junkie’’ was not alone in her addiction to Valium, the ‘‘new white-collar aspirin.’’ Former first lady Betty Ford became the most famous victim of ‘‘prescribed addiction’’ when she admitted her dependence on Valium and alcohol in 1978, but even before this, hair-raising stories like ‘‘Valium—The Pill You Love Can Turn on You’’ abounded in popular magazines, in local ...

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5 Prozac and the Incorporation of the Brain

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pp. 150-191

One of the most unlikely celebrities of the early 1990s was an anonymous psychiatric patient known only by the pseudonym ‘‘Tess.’’ Tess was a rags-to-respectability corporate success whose unhappiness and chronic romantic misfortunes led her to a psychiatrist’s office. The psychiatrist happened to be Peter Kramer, who prescribed her the new antidepressant Prozac and described the near-miraculous results in a best-selling ...

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Conclusion. Better Living through Chemistry?

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pp. 192-203

Contrary to what one might initially think, the history of psychiatric drugs is not a story of scientific discoveries and their consequences. To tell this history, one must speak not of molecules—meprobamate, diazepam, fluoxetine hydrochloride—but of the active efforts of many different people who transformed these chemicals into Miltown, Valium, and Prozac. Many Americans—researchers, physicians, and patients; advertisers, lobbyists, and public-relations experts; consumer advocates, antidrug crusaders, feminists, and consumers of popular media—worked ...

Appendix A. Medications Mentioned

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pp. 205-206

Appendix B. Prescriptions for Psychiatric Drugs, 1955–2005

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pp. 207


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pp. 209-273


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pp. 275-279

E-ISBN-13: 9781421400990
E-ISBN-10: 1421400995
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801898143
Print-ISBN-10: 0801898145

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 14 halftones, 2 line drawings
Publication Year: 2010