The Points Interview: David Herzberg

Editors’ Note: We’re delighted to bring Points readers another installment (number sixteen) in the “Points Interview” series.  Today, we’re getting happy with David Herzberg, author of Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).  David Herzberg has been a Contributing Editor here at Points, and is also an Associate Professor in the Department of History at SUNY-Buffalo (where he also hosted the recent conference of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society).

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

Happy Pills is a cultural history of Miltown, Valium, and Prozac—three of the best known, Cover of Happy Pills in Americamost widely used, and controversial medicines in the postwar era.  It tells their medical and commercial stories, but also asks why they became so faddish and contentious, and how their fame (and infamy) influenced medical and popular ideas about consciousness and identity.
The book begins in the 1950s, when Miltown became the first “blockbuster” tranquilizer and an early icon of biological psychiatry.  The drug’s celebrity was the product of several developments:  intensified popular marketing of prescription drugs; increased medical and public attention to anxiety as an illness, led in part by Freudian psychiatry; and a burgeoning consumer culture primed to deliver technological wonders in the name of comfort and convenience for the middle classes.
But Miltown’s popularity didn’t sit well with everyone; in fact the prospect of eradicating anxiety made some people quite nervous.  The tranquilizer and its successors quickly became embroiled in postwar gender battles and the explosive politics of the “war against drugs,” and Happy Pills traces these stories to their combined conclusion in a feminist campaign against Valium addiction in the 1970s.  This was a most unusual anti-drug campaign, targeting sexism in drug companies and the medical system rather than stoking fear of addicts.  It capped off a decade of challenges to the pharmaceutical industry, and was part of a broader effort by reformers to rethink the boundaries between “drugs” and “medicines.”

Happy Pills ends with a look at the emergence of Prozac and other antidepressants in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the accompanying revival of popular belief in wonder drugs.  Why was this resurgence so successful when the drugs themselves turned out to be far from revolutionary?  Prozac’s boosters, I argue, took new findings in brain science and used them to create a story that was as much political as it was scientific:  miraculous new consumer goods now made it possible to pick and choose personalities—identities—in a utopian free market of accessorizable selfhood.  However exaggerated such promises may have been, they proved a powerful cultural vehicle for pushback against feminist-era drug critics, and a fitting vision of identity and personal change for an increasingly conservative era.

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