Barbiturate was synthesised by Adolf von Baeyer in 1864, by condensing diethyl malonate with urea. There are several accounts explaining how barbiturate got its name. The likeliest explanation is that this event occurred on the feast day of St Barbara, and the saint’s name and urea were conjoined to form ‘barbiturate’. It is unclear why the discovery of barbiturate was celebrated at the time, as no medical use for it was found until 1903, when Joseph von Mering and Emil Fischer synthesised barbitone. Named Veronal, this was the first barbiturate to be sold as a sleeping drug.
Barbiturate drugs affect the nervous system. They can take the form of both mild sedatives and powerful anaesthetics. For the first time it became possible to use pharmacological tools to treat emotional, mental and sleep disorders, as well as epileptic seizures. Administered intravenously, barbiturates were a pioneering drug which produced significantly beneficial results. Their discovery also led to the growth and development of surgical anaesthetics.
Some 2500 types of barbiturate were produced over the last century, of which 50 became common in clinical use. Barbiturates are also anxiolytics, or anxiety inhibitors, and started to be used as tranquillisers. During the Second World War, American soldiers were given barbiturate “Goofballs” to help them cope with stress and the tropical conditions of the South Pacific. This caused many soldiers to become dependent on the drug. By the 1950’s it became clear that the problem was serious and widespread.
As well as people becoming addicted, in 1960 barbiturate overdoses were being recorded on a scale which resulted in barbiturates becoming classified as controlled drugs. This was done to limit and combat its recreational use. As well as producing relaxing effects similar to alcohol, barbiturates create feelings of euphoria. Intoxication can easily lead to overdose and death from low blood pressure and respiratory failure. Now largely replaced by benzodiazepines, which are less dangerous, barbiturates are still used to treat epilepsy, as veterinary anaesthetics and to euthanise animals. They are also used for medically assisted suicides in a few countries, and for lethal injections in executions in the United States.