Benzodiazepines in the 1960s

In the early 1960s, some of the earlier tranquilizer drugs became less prevalent as benzodiazepines emerged. Several new medications such as librium and valium were quickly popularized upon their release to the market and they become more desired anxiety medications than memprobamates.1 Advertisements for Valium directed at doctors for their female clientele promote it as a way to calm the female patient who may be experiencing her mental health crisis due to missing the mark in societal expectations and success revolving around marriage as well as loss of significant male figures in her life as the reason for her distress.2

Interestingly, these advertisements do not draw attention to women’s distress within their societal roles but instead focus on ways to keep them pacified within those roles. It is evident in women’s responses to an article written by reporter Edwin Diamond in a 1960 edition of Newsweek “Looking at Young Wives with Brains” that many women are highly frustrated by their situation in roles as wives and mothers and that this is a main source of women’s unhappiness and distress. He described in his article, part of which is pictured below, things women had access to that society viewed as “fulfilling” and he “questioned” their dissatisfaction within their roles as a way to draw out the problems American women were facing.3

While not all women agreed on the issues as seen in part by the image above, women’s responses to this article are evidence of the dissatisfaction and in some cases despair many women felt in these roles leading to the use of tranquilizers.4

Valium quickly became the preferred tranquilizer and has been called “Mother’s Little Helper” after the song from The Rolling Stones because of its correlation with being prescribed to overworked and anxious mothers.5 In “How to Keep Well: The Housewife Syndrome” in a 1962 edition of The Chicago Tribune, anxiety and depression as it is seen in housewives are addressed along with the different “types” of women anxiety can produce. In this case, the doctor discusses options for care for women which in part is weakly described as organizing the household duties better and lifestyle changes, but he says that many women prefer a more convenient option which is the tranquilizers. This speaks to the desire for convenience that was present during this period as well as perhaps the challenge to make the types of lifestyle changes that would be necessary to make lasting improvements for women.6

 Competition between drug companies to capitalize on the sales of tranquilizers influenced marketing by attempting to reach their clientele by understanding gender-specific problems that they attempted to convince the doctors could be solved with the medication. 7Both the drug companies and the doctors were profiting off of this and criteria is also established for a prescription which serves as a reason to sell the medications.8 Companies selling tranquilizers are pushing to make as much money as possible and this is evident in the example of Thalidomide situation in the early 1960s. when the Richardson-Merrell pharmaceutical company pushed to get this drug on the market to Americans as it was already used in parts of Europe and South America. The company tried hard to push Thalidomide to be approved by the FDA. Frances Oldham Kelsey, the FDA Medical Reviewer who is known for stopping Thalidomide from being used in America, notes the urgency that the company held for getting their product on the market when she says “They kept calling me, and then just came right out and said, ‘We want to get this drug on the market before Christmas, because that is when our best sales are.’” Given the poor testing done prior to the use of the drug in other locations and the detrimental after-effects of major birth defects and deaths, this incident shows how competitive the market was and the lines companies could be willing to cross to increase their profits. 9 

By 1966, it appears that the FDA had real concern about the number of people becoming addicted to memprobamates. The FDA argues for restrictions tightening down their use, which shows that not only were people not aware of the potential dangers and side effects from the drugs, but that possibly without regulation, many doctors may not have been using sufficient care and criteria when prescribing the medications and push-back from tranquilizer companies shows the lack of ethics involved in the high number of sales.10,

An article advertising “Fact” from 1966 refers to the “drug addiction of American housewives” as a topic, linking the tranquilizer use to housewives and highlighting the concern that was building by 1966 about the growing use and addiction of memprobamates.11

  1. Andrea Tone. The Age of Anxiety: A History of America’s Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers 1st ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 73, accessed November 2, 2023,
    LOPEZ-MUNOZ, Francisco, Cecilio ALAMO, and Pilar GARCIA-GARCIA. “The Discovery of Chlordiazepoxide and the Clinical Introduction of Benzodiazepines: Half a Century of Anxiolytic Drugs.” Journal of Anxiety Disorders 25, no. 4 (2011): 554–62.
  2. “The Advertising Archives Picture Library,” Advertising Archives, accessed November 5, 2023,
  3. Edwin Diamond, “Young Wives,” Newsweek, March 7, 1960, 57-60, accessed November 6, 2023,
  4. “A Report from Our Readers,” Newsweek, March 28, 1960, 94-95, accessed November 6, 2023,

    Andrea Tone and Elizabeth Siegel Watkins, Medicating Modern America, 2007, (New York : NYU Press. 2007), 70, accessed November 6, 2023,

    Edward Shorter, A Historical Dictionary of Psychiatry, (Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2005), 41, accessed November 6, 2023,

  5. Edward Shorter, A Historical Dictionary of Psychiatry, (Cary: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2005), 41, accessed November 6, 2023,

  6. By Dr Theo, Van R. Dellen, “How to Keep Well: THE HOUSEWIFE SYNDROME,” The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973), June 11, 1962, accessed November 6, 2023, ↩︎
  7. Andrea Tone. The Age of Anxiety: A History of America’s Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers 1st ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 154, 155, 158, accessed November 2, 2023, ↩︎
  8. Andrea Tone. The Age of Anxiety: A History of America’s Turbulent Affair with Tranquilizers 1st ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 106, 131, 132, accessed November 2, 2023,

  9. Linda Bren. “Frances Oldham Kelsey. FDA Medical Reviewer Leaves Her Mark on History,” FDA Consumer, Vol. 35, United States: Superintendent of Documents, 2001, accessed November 6, 2023,

  10. “U.S. OPENS INQUIRY ON TRANQUILIZER: PSYCHIATRIST LINKS USE OF MEPROBAMATE TO ADDICTION,” (1966, Jun 28). New York Times, 1923, accessed November 6, 2023,
    “FDA to Seek Tranquilizer Restrictions,” 1966, Jun 28, Chicago Tribune (1963-1996) accessed November 6, 2023,
  11. “Display Ad 551 — no Title,” New York Times 1923, Jan 02, 1966, accessed November 6, 2023, ↩︎