July 24, 1972 – This was the day when Chinese-American neuroscientist David T. Wong (36) while testing a new compound (fluoxetine) in the lab of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co., came to the conclusion that it might make an effective antidepressant by regulating brain serotonin levels. It would make him famous.
Wong had started this particular thread of research on his own initiative, without asking the company’s consent. As he told later, “I didn’t even tell management that I started until I got going.”
He first published about his fluoxetine discovery in 1974, and the next year Ely Lilly gave it the brand name Prozac. Larger-scale testing started in 1976, and Prozac was patented in 1982.
Sales finally began in January 1988, over 15 years after the initial laboratory breakthrough. From the beginning, the new product was intensively promoted with campaigns aiming both for psychiatrists and other physicians, and the general public. Here is an early campaign image:
As the first available drug in the SSRI class (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor) Prozac soon became one of the best-selling antidepressants ever. For many depression patients, it replaced less effective drugs such as the tranquilizer Valium.
A Kind of Emblem
“Prozac” soon became a household name. In 1994, just six years after its appearance on the market, it was already so well known that Elizabeth Wurtzel could give her 1994 autobiographical novel about being “young and depressed in America” the emblematic title Prozac Nation.
Many people (including me) think that in the past decades Prozac has sometimes been over-prescribed to patients who might have been better off with less medication or even none at all. Still, it’s obvious that Wong’s discovery did not just generate huge profits for his employers. It probably did save a lot of lives as well.
- If you’re curious about Elizabeth Wurtzel’s 1994 depression novel, the Goodreads website offers a good first impression by presenting an extensive collection of 120 quotes from the book: Prozac Nation Quotes.
- For a very critical discussion of the medical, historical and cultural role of Prozac and related drugs, get the 2006 book by David Healy Let Them Eat Prozac: The Unhealthy Relationship Between the Pharmaceutical Industry and Depression.