A full-page advertisement in a 1960 medical journal shows a photograph of a woman visiting her physician. The woman—who is white and well-dressed, with high cheekbones, a Peter Pan collar, and a Mary Tyler Moore hairstyle—is there to discuss her emotional problems. As the ad explains, she has been “suffering from recurring states of anxiety which have no organic etiology.” In other words, it’s a mystery, these feelings of hers.
Fortunately, the woman’s doctor has just the thing: a tranquilizing pill that promises to dull the small anxieties of daily life. Armed with her new medication, the ad shows the woman going about her day. She takes a pill at breakfast so she can stay calm, “even under the pressure of busy, crowded supermarket shopping.” While in the grocery aisle, the woman peacefully examines the ingredients on a can of peas. She takes another pill at dinner so she is able to stay alert at her children’s school to “listen carefully to P.T.A. Proposals.” Finally, back home, tucked into bed, the woman drifts peacefully off to sleep.
By the time this advertisement appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the advertised drug, meprobamate—known primarily by the brand name Miltown—was the most popular prescription drug in the United States. In 1956, after only a single year on the market, Miltown had been tried by nearly 1 in 20 Americans. Doctors used the pill to ease a host of ailments in men, women, and even children—including headaches, rashes, tension, insomnia, childhood bed-wetting, high blood pressure, juvenile delinquency, and epilepsy. Perfectly legal and easily available by prescription, Miltown was the first drug in a class that physicians started calling “minor tranquilizers” in the mid-1950s; instead of sedation, these pills offered peace of mind. For the first time in American history, everyday anxieties could seemingly be cured by a single trip to the doctor.
Like many advances in pharmacology, the discovery of chemical tranquility came about by accident.