An allergy suffer remembers the Benadryl inventor

I just got back from Ontario, California after going to the Podcast and New Media Expo. I met a lot of other podcaster and bloggers and learned a few new things. The event ended on Sunday early enough for me to take a trip that I will talk about in the next few weeks. Final Taxi Logo

I love the air in California and as I got off the plane in Alabama on Monday, I started sneezing. It is the time for ‘ragweed’ here in the south and I am feeling the effects. There was only one thing for me to do to get myself readjusted. I reach in the medicine cabinet and pulled out the Benadryl. Benadryl is commonly used to treat allergy symptoms such as hay fever, rashes and hives
It is a drug that is taken quite a bit in my household. My daughter has several allergies to many things but the most deadly to her is latex. Balloons, gloves, iPod holders, and so many things have this in it and we have to have a few pills of Benadryl on hand all the time.

I thank God for Benadryl and for the inventor George Rieveschl. Rieveschl took his Final Taxi last week at the age of 91.

Having graduated from the Ohio Mechanics Institute of Technology in 1933 as a commercial artist, Rieveschl – unable to find any work in the field – decided instead to enroll at the University of Cincinnati. A decade later, his laboratory research at UC produced the world’s first effective antihistamine: beta-dimethylaminoethylbenzhydryl ether hydrochloride. You and I know it as Benadryl.

I am always blogging that we do not know what the plan of life is and sometimes what we plan is not the way it goes. (Yeah- my “It’s A Wonderful” philosophy.)

If the depression was not on, Rieveschl may have taken another path he says ”If I had found an art job back in the ’30s, I would have taken it. It seemed like bad luck at the time, but it ended up working out pretty well.”

After getting his PhD in chemistry he was given temporary setback when he could get a good job and so he took an $1,800-a-year chemistry teaching job opened up at UC. It required him to teach a chemical engineering class that he had never taken himself, but Rieveschl joked that he ”managed to stay one chapter ahead of the class.”

After the U.S. entered World War II, Rieveschl worked on several projects for the military at UC. One was to create stronger propellants allowing planes to get off the ground faster from short runways. The other was to produce a synthetic leather tanning agent for boot soles to replace the Brazilian tree bark normally used, a source that disappeared when German subs began sinking ships leaving South America.

While teaching he began expanding his own research on local anesthetics and looking for ways to improve muscle-relaxing antispasmodics, such as those used to relieve menstrual cramps.

His antispasmodics were tested on muscle from the small intestine of a guinea pig by triggering contractions and then determining whether a drug could prevent the spasms. Histamine, a chemical released in the body that narrows air passages, is one of three compounds that can trigger such spasms. When Rieveschl’s new compound was tested, its effect was ”a thousand times greater than anything they’d ever seen,” he said, adding, in a modest understatement: ”That certainly got everyone’s attention.”

While the compound, code-named A-524, underwent further clinical testing, Rieveschl began thinking up possible names from its 19-syllable chemical description. He finally settled on Benadryl, choosing the beginning and end of its full name, ”and throwing in a vowel in the middle because it sounded better.”

”Plus, ‘bena’ means benefit, something good,” he said. ”It seemed to fit.”

In the fall of 1943, Rieveschl left UC to work for Parke-Davis.

Because he had invented Benadryl prior to working for Parke-Davis, Rieveschl received a 5 percent royalty for 17 years, the length of the patent. While that proved quite lucrative – based on sales that rose to about $6 million a year by the early ’60s – Rieveschl did not benefit from the astronomic profits when the FDA made Benadryl an over-the-counter drug in the 1980s and sales jumped to $180 million in the first year.

Rieveschl spent 22 years in Detroit working for Parke-Davis, progressing from laboratory research chemist to director of chemical research in 1947, scientific assistant to the president in 1954 and vice president of commercial development in 1961.

By the mid-1960s, however, he had become disenchanted with the company’s conservative management and top executives’ inability to recognize how rapidly the pharmaceutical industry was changing so he left.

After four years as a consultant to a Swiss company and a handful of firms in this country, Rieveschl returned to UC in 1970 and retired in 1982. Five years later the university honored him by naming its main science and engineering building after him. His lengthy list of other honors includes the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce’s Great Living Cincinnatian Award in 1990 and induction into the International Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 1995.

George Rieveschl will be remembered most for inventing Benadryl and for that I am very grateful.

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One Response

  1. Great article!

    The one time I most being grateful for benadryl was when I was out horseback riding with a friend and we were not far from the truck when our horses stepped through some ground bee nests and all of us were attacked by an angry swarm.

    I kept pills in my truck just in case of exactly what happened and I am so glad I did as my friend and I were stung more than a dozen times each and were far from any other kind of help.

    I just last month gave benadryl to my HORSE for a severe allergic reaction.

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