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Roche's Valium inventor dies in US

Leo Sternbach working at Roche's US headquarters in Nutley, New Jersey

(Keystone)

Leo Sternbach, who invented a revolutionary new class of tranquilisers including Valium for Switzerland's Roche pharmaceutical company, has died aged 97.

As recently as 1994, Roche products with the name "Sternbach" on their patents accounted for more than a quarter of the company's worldwide drug revenues.

"Within every company there are one or two people whose legacy becomes the hallmark of what the company is all about. For Roche, that is Dr Sternbach," said George Abercrombie, president and chief executive of Roche's United States operations.

"He was a unique individual with a demonstrated passion for science – he was an inventor's inventor."

The award-winning chemist helped the Basel-based multinational build its US headquarters in Nutley, New Jersey, after fleeing the Nazis during the Second World War.

An Austrian native who said he had loved chemistry since his youth, Sternbach led the development of more than a dozen important drugs during a six-decade career with Roche. From an economic standpoint, Sternbach's accomplishments made him a legendary figure at the company.

Drug discoveries

His breakthroughs included the sleeping pills Dalmane and Mogadon, Klonopin for epileptic seizures and Arfonad for limiting bleeding during brain surgery.

Valium, marketed in 1963, became one of the biggest selling drugs in the world. Roche sold nearly 2.3 billion 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 realised 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 Krakow University in Poland.

He began working at Roche's Basel headquarters in 1940 and in June 1941 fled to the US with the rest of Roche's Jewish scientists.

He and his wife, Herta, settled in Montclair, near Roche's US operations, raised two sons and lived there until 2003, when they moved to North Carolina.

Named one of the 25 most influential Americans of the 20th century by US News & World Report, Sternbach's credits include 241 patents, 122 publications, honorary degrees and other awards.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Roche, which was founded in 1896 by Fritz Hoffmann, has its headquarters in Basel.
It employs around 65,000 people in 150 countries.
Roche posted first-half net profit of SFr3.24 billion ($2.51 billion) for 2005 – up 4% on the same period last year.

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In brief

Sternbach spearheaded Roche's development of Librium, Valium and at least 11 other therapeutic products marketed around the world from the 1950s.

His spectacular career was distinguished by 241 patents, 122 publications and multiple honours.

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