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Happy Pills in America

, 296 pages

14 halftones, 2 line drawings

October 2010



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Happy Pills in America

From Miltown to Prozac

Valium. Paxil. Prozac. Prescribed by the millions each year, these medications have been hailed as wonder drugs and vilified as numbing and addictive crutches. Where did this "blockbuster drug" phenomenon come from? What factors led to the mass acceptance of tranquilizers and antidepressants? And how has their widespread use affected American culture?

David Herzberg addresses these questions by tracing the rise of psychiatric medicines, from Miltown in the 1950s to Valium in the 1970s to Prozac in the 1990s. The result is more than a story of doctors and patients. From bare-knuckled marketing campaigns to political activism by feminists and antidrug warriors, the fate of psychopharmacology has been intimately wrapped up in the broader currents of modern American history. Beginning with the emergence of a medical marketplace for psychoactive drugs in the postwar consumer culture, Herzberg traces how "happy pills" became embroiled in Cold War gender battles and the explosive politics of the "war against drugs"—and how feminists brought the two issues together in a dramatic campaign against Valium addiction in the 1970s. A final look at antidepressants shows that even the Prozac phenomenon owed as much to commerce and culture as to scientific wizardry.

With a barrage of "ask your doctor about" advertisements competing for attention with shocking news of drug company malfeasance, Happy Pills is an invaluable look at how the commercialization of medicine has transformed American culture since the end of World War II.

David Herzberg is an assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

"Excellent... stresses the dynamics of sex roles and social class that underlie the culture of psychotropic drug use. He grounds the success of tranquilizers in the consumer culture that emerged after World War II, emphasizing the shrewd marketing techniques that allowed drug companies to separate their products, which appealed to a largely white, middle-class constituency, from the illegal drugs that were used by marginalized racial, ethnic, and class groups. Drug companies also promoted the tranquilizers in ways that reinforced traditional sex roles, implying that their products would allow men to strengthen their authority at home and in the office and would allow women to embrace their duties as wives and mothers."

"By placing human action at the heart of this culturally rich history, Herzberg has written a masterful account of the travels of 'happy pills' from Madison Avenue to your medicine cabinet."

"Do read this book. It will make you even more thoughtful about your next prescription for antidepressants."

"Herzberg does an excellent job of expounding on the interplay of social, cultural, and commercial forces that influenced the rise and fall of these blockbuster drugs."

"Herzberg deftly explains the dispensing of 'happy pills' within the prism of Cold War class consciousness while the US fought a discordant contemporaneous 'war on drugs.'"

"[Avoids] heated debates between advocates of psychotropic medication such as Peter Kramer and vocal critics such as Peter Breggin and David Healy. Instead, Herzberg shows us how the meanings attached to such drugs evolved from a complex interplay of shifting interests, including those of marketers, patients and doctors. Although the story is a complicated one, it is highly readable and Herzberg tells it using plain, non-technical language."

"The book admirably achieves its main aim: describing the reception of tranquilizers in the popular imagination of postwar America. It also draws attention to the important issue of happiness as an increasingly medicalized commodity in that context."

"A brilliant book, rich and mind-bending... Unlike most others on the subject, Happy Pills seeks not to condemn or celebrate but to understand. I find it hard not to praise it too much, not to become a marketing tool urging its wider distribution and intellectual consumption."

"Herzberg eloquently guides us through the world of happy pills in post–World War II America... Happy Pills is an engaging, insightful, and well-researched book that makes a strong contribution to the historical and social study of science."

"Herzberg is a a social historian and meticulous auditor of the progress of psychotropic medication in the USA... On the one hand these drugs offer escape from the stresses and strains of socio-economic relations; on the other hand they are a direct product of those relations."

"Truly a dizzying array of data on the history of the science, commerce, marketing, medicine, psychiatry and psychology, all aspects of the history of the pills, is a major achievement... Herzberg's book, exemplifying history of medicine as a thoroughly interdisciplinary field, is important and timely."

"An incisive cultural history that documents the transformation of these medications into 'happy pills' for the middle class."

"Welcome and informative... a kind of protest against the tendency to assume that the issues surrounding psychiatric drug use can be reduced to scientific or technological factors."

"This well-crafted book combines historical perspectives with the enduring issues of consumerism, patients' rights, ethical principles, and the role of pharmaceutical companies in marketing medicines."

"Highlights important implications of the cultural embrace of lifestyle drugs for dealing with everyday problems of living."

"A timely book, persuasive and well documented."

"This extremely well-written and well-researched book demands, and deserves, a wide audience."

"Written with verve, it offers myriad ways to understand the complexity and range of its subject. Not only does it illuminate American drug cultures; it also demonstrates the rich interplay of invention, marketing, advertising, expertise, regulation, medical practice, and consumption."

"An excellent starting point from which to explore many changes in post-war American psychiatry, changes that have affected the way in which we conceptualize, analyse and treat mental illness."

"[An] intriguing book."

"Herzberg steers a very steady course through dangerous waters. Happy Pills is a beautiful read, its thesis engaging, and its style well-paced and fresh. Its non-technical language and focus on the interaction between drugs and the broader culture should appeal to many readers regardless of specialization."

" Happy Pills in America offers an extraordinary analysis of how tranquilizers and antidepressants were as much a part of the post-World War II consumer society as suburban living and the car culture. Whether Americans bought or sold, advertised or prescribed, embraced or condemned these feel-good pills, they participated in commodifying the 'good life.'"

" Happy Pills provides readers, especially college-level students, with an excellent historical introduction to the subject of mood-altering prescription drugs as used in the United States in the post-World War II era. Herzberg's clear and readable prose masks in part the depth of his understanding and analysis of the topic. In addition to its classroom potential, this is a serious book with valuable insights for scholars in the field."

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