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Volwiler and Tabern

General Anesthetic Pentothal

Anesthesiologists around the world know well and have come to rely heavily on an intravenous drug developed in 1936 known as Pentothal. The fast-acting general anesthetic has the ability to quickly and easily put patients to sleep for a short period of time in order to relieve the discomfort of surgery or other medical procedures, or to make it easier for physicians to administer longer lasting, inhalable anesthetics after the patient has comfortably "gone under."Volwiler and Tabern

Ernest H. Volwiler and Donalee L. Tabern worked together to develop the substance as part of their attempt to discover an anesthetic that could be injected directly into the bloodstream to produce unconsciousness. Working for Abbott Laboratories, the pair spent three years screening hundreds of compounds to find one that could produce the desired effect, but would also be comfortable for the patient, with little or no extreme risks or side effects.

Tabern, born on Jan. 27, 1900 in Bowling Green, Ohio, was educated at the University of Michigan, where he completed a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1924. He spent two years teaching at Cornell University before joining Abbott Labs in 1926.

Hamilton, Ohio native Volwiler was born on August 22, 1893. He earned a B.S. from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed a Master's degree and Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Illinois. He joined Abbott Laboratories shortly thereafter as a staff chemist.

At the time of the men's discovery, doctors had been using ether or chloroform, both inhaled, as general anesthetics. Sometimes these drugs were not only difficult to administer, they also were known to produce side effects that were very unpleasant, including hallucinations and muscle twitching.

Pentothal, which is actually Abbott Labs' brand name for "5-ethyl-5-(1-methylbutyl)-2-thiobarbituric acid" or thiopental sodium, acts so quickly that the patient is spared much of the early discomfort associated with the administration of general anesthetics, which are meant to eliminate pain sensation throughout the entire body during surgery.

Pentothal, the first general anesthetic to be widely used intravenously, was immediately successful and spawned an entirely new family of "short-acting" barbituate drugs (which now includes Brevital and Surital). Uses for Sodium Pentothal were later expanded. It was recognized as a "radioprotective drug" that could help prevent tissue damage in patients receiving radiation treatment for cancer; it was also used in the 1940s for narcotherapy treatment, a type of hypnosis-like therapy that psychiatrists believed helped patients reveal repressed memories.

It is also sometimes referred to as "Truth Serum," for what Hollywood movies portray as the drug administered to get criminals to confess to crimes or expose details of schemes in the making. It is thought that the relaxation the drug produces might cause some to lose inhibitions, anxiety and just enough awareness that they'll begin babbling away, so to speak, under its influence.

Volwiler and Tabern were awarded U.S. Patent No. 2,153,729 for Pentothal's discovery, and in 1986, the pair were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, the two continued to make their marks along their own separate paths at Abbott. After spending years working with Tabern on pioneering research related to anesthetic pharmacology, including the development of the drug Nembutal, Volwiler began to focus on helping Abbott with its commercialization efforts for pharmaceutical products including penicillin. He became president of Abbot in 1950 and chairman of the board in 1958. Abbott established the Volwiler Society in his name in 1985 to recognize the company's most distinguished scientists and engineers. Volwiler died in 1992.

Tabern devoted his efforts in the 1940s to radiopharmaceuticals, which have great value in medical diagnosis and treatment of certain diseases. His efforts helped Abbott become the first drug company to supply radiopharmaceuticals to medical and research institutions in 1948. He was also involved with antimalarial drugs, diuretics, antiseptics, and X-ray diagnostic agents, and during World War II he lead projects related to solving problems in military medicine. Tabern died on Dec. 31, 1974.

[May 2006]

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