A Science Odyssey 'On The Edge'

Miracle Pill


Narrative: Ace reporter Flois Flame has just arrived at the City of Lights, Paris, France, where she has arranged an interview with Dr. Henri Laborit, the surgeon who, with his discovery of a radical new treatment, will revolutionize the way pyschiatry looks at mental illness. We catch up with Flois at the Tuileries Gardens.

Flois (thought bubble): Where on Earth is this Dr. Laborit. Doesn't he realize that I have a deadline to meet! What would he care anyway -- he's not the one who has to deal with the Chief!

Narrative: A few minutes later...

Flois: Dr Laborit! Hi. I'm Flois Flame. It's a pleasure to meet you!
(thought bubble): And thanks for making me wait!

Dr Laborit: Bonjour, Mademoiselle Flame. And no, the pleasure, it is all mine.

Flois: Let's get started. I understand that you discovered a pill that cures mental illness.

Dr Laborit: Oh mon dieu! -- I could never honestly make that claim. What I did was find a drug that would calm my patients before surgery.

Flois: You are a surgeon then? I thought you were some kind of psychologist.
(thought bubble): Leave it to Jimmy Nolsen to give me inaccurate information!

Dr Laborit: Yes, Miss Flame, I am a surgeon. Anyway, two years ago, in 1950, I began a search for a drug that would reduce my patients' need for an anesthetic -- you know, before I operated on them.

Flois: An anesthetic?

Dr Laborit: Yes, something to render them unconscious. Anyway, I thought that an antihistamine -- something used to treat allergies and asthma -- might, as you say in Megatropolis, "do the trick."

Flois: And did it?

Dr Laborit: With remarkable success. My patients, they did not need as much anesthesia. But something else there was, too. They no longer were anxious. They no longer were afraid. You could even say they no longer had a care in the world.

Flois (thought bubble): If only I could be so lucky.

Flois: And this is where mental illness comes into the picture.

Dr Laborit: Précisement! Since the drug calmed my surgical patients, I reasoned that it could calm psychiatric patients, especially those who needed to be restrained.

Dr Laborit: I believed that one antihistamine in particular would prove useful to psychiatry -- the name of this drug is chlorpromazine. But trying to convince psychiatrists of the chlorpromazine's potential was not easy. Finally, there were two who tried an experiment -- Dr. Jean Delay and Dr. Pierre Deniker.

Flois (thought bubble): Oh no! I have an appointment with Dr Deniker in less than 10 minutes!

Narrative: Meanwhile, at a Megatropolis mental hospital, aggressive, agitated patients are calmed by being restrained in bathtubs filled with cool water...

Doctor: I only hope that we someday have a better treatment for patients like Mr. K.

Narrative: Back in Paris, at St. Anne's Mental Hospital, we find Flois sitting with Dr. Deniker...

Flois: Dr. Deniker, tell me about the first time you used the drug recommended by Dr Laborit.

Dr. Denniker: We first tried chlorpromazine on ten uncontrollable patients. Almost immediately the patients seemed less agitated. They no longer needed straightjackets or to be kept in isolation rooms.

Flois: It must have seemed like a miracle.

It did. Then we tried it on other patients. It helped those who were withdrawn, who didn't even move for as long as a month. For others, it eliminated hallucinations.

Narrative: Later that day...

Flois (thought bubble that shows what she's typing): ...and so psychiatrists have a new treatment at their disposal. A treatment that takes care of a mental disease in the same way that an aspirin takes care of a headache. And unlike previous treatments, which would heavily sedate a patient, this one seems to target just the disease. It's far from perfect, though. The side effects it causes can be severe. Still, it is a step in the right direction...

Narrative: The Megatropolis mental hospital, one month later...

Doctor: So long, Mr. K! Good luck with your new life!

Flois: Oh! I'm terribly sorry. I should watch where I'm going.

Clark: It's quite all right, Ms...

Flois: Call me Flois.

Clark: Nice to meet you, I'm Clark. Clark Klint.

Flois (thought bubble): Wow! What a grip!

Many advances have been made in the forty-six years since Dr. Laborit's discovery, which was later marketed in the U.S. as Thorazine. Such early drugs caused noticeable side effects. Today, many brain afflictions are treated with drugs that can target specific chemical imbalances in the brain, and result in less severe side effects.

The End

Related People and Discoveries entries

graphic version of Miracle Pill

Home | On the Edge Menu | People and Discoveries | Printable Version | Help

WGBH | PBS Online | Search | Feedback | Shop
© 1998 WGBH