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Leo H. Sternbach

Leo H. Sternbach

Gift of Dr. Leo Sternbach, CHF Collections

  • Born: May 7, 1908, Abbazia, Austria
  • Died: September 28, 2005, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0043
Interview Date: March 12, 1986
Location: Hoffmann-La Roche Inc., Nutley, New Jersey
Interviewer: Tonja A. Koeppel
No. of pages: 49
Minutes: 120

  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 Ph.D. 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.


1929 M. Pharmacy University of Cracow
1931 Ph.D., Organic Chemistry, University of Cracow

  Professional Experience

University of Cracow

1931 - 1937 Research Assistant with Professor K. Dziewonski

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössiche Technische Hochschule)

1937 - 1940 Research Fellow with Professor L. Ruzicka

Hoffmann-La Roche, Basel, Switzerland

1940 - 1941 Research Chemist

Hoffmann-La Roche, Nutley, New Jersey

1941 - 1959 Group Chief

Hoffmann-La Roche, Nutley, New Jersey

1959 - 1965 Senior Group Chief

Hoffmann-La Roche, Nutley, New Jersey

1965 - 1967 Section Chief

Hoffmann-La Roche, Nutley, New Jersey

1966 - 1973 Director of Medicinal Chemistry

Hoffmann-La Roche, Nutley, New Jersey

1973 - 2005 Consultant


1971 Honorary Dr. 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

Title and Description Page

Childhood 1

Born 7 May 1908 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 window sill for laboratory. Parents return to Poland; completes Gymnasium there.

Jagiellonian University in Cracow 7

Enrolls in pharmacy curriculum, including several chemistry courses. Ph.D. 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

  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 Ph.D. 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.

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