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Minor tranquilisers

Vials of diazepam, a minor tranquiliser.

Vials of diazepam, a minor tranquiliser.

Credits:Paul Griggs, Wellcome Library.

Minor tranquilisers are now called ‘hypnotics’ or sleeping medications. They were a class of psychiatric drug, but differed from the powerful ‘major tranquilisers’ used to calm patients in mental hospitals. Minor tranquilisers were meant to help people cope with the stresses and anxieties of daily life, and therefore their potential market was huge. Their social impact in the 1960s and 1970s rivalled that of the contraceptive pill.

Meprobamate was the first minor tranquiliser. It was developed by a Swiss pharmaceutical company, and went on sale in 1956 under the trade names Miltown and Equanil. Other minor tranquilisers included chlordiazepoxide (sold as Librium) nitrazepamand diazepam, released in 1963 under the trade name Valium. It treated tension, anxiety, sleeplessness and neurosis. Valium was the top-selling pharmaceutical drug in the US throughout the 1970s. It was prescribed more to women than men.

Feminist writers of the time saw the vogue for minor tranquilisers as a mixed blessing. They said that it showed many women were dissatisfied with lives still mainly organised around Victorian stereotypes of the loving mother and the dutiful housewife. However, the popularity of Valium also suggested many women bowed to pressure from psychiatrists to treat their dissatisfaction as a medical problem. These feminists did not see dissatisfaction as something to be ‘cured’ by taking ‘happy pills’. They saw it as a political problem to be solved through activism and social change.

Concerns that minor tranquilisers might be addictive arose in the late 1960s. They focused on Valium, the most popular drug. Later commentators argued the media, as well as some feminist writers, overstated the danger. The public attention brought feminist criticisms of psychiatry to a broader audience, and also slowed sales of the minor tranquilisers significantly. However, Valium remained the bestselling pharmaceutical in history as of 2010.


M C Smith, A Social History of the Minor Tranquilizers : The Quest for Small Comfort in the Age of Anxiety (New York : Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1991)