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Pentathol Postcards

Ellison, Norig, MD

Book and Multimedia Reviews: Media Review

Professor of Anesthesia; University of Pennsylvania; Philadelphia, PA 19104;

Pentathol Postcards Lai DC. West New York, NJ, Mark Batty Publishers, 2005. ISBN 975636-6-0. 190 pages, $24.92.

In this era of rapid electronic communication the suggestion that postcards would be used to advertise a drug seems ludicrous. Nevertheless, in 1954, the year when Abbott Labs’ patent on pentathol ran out, television was in its infancy, and the internet did not exist, postcards were sent to physicians, nurses, and pharmacists from unique sites extolling the virtues of pentathol. The exact number of cards sent through 1968 is unknown, but was in the millions.

Most cards were in English, but nine other languages were also used. Cards were shipped from over 170 sites in 70 countries. In some instances the volume of cards at a remote site proved overwhelming—e.g., in 1961 all mailings from Wilkes in the Australian Antarctic Territory totaled 286,000 and 280,000 were pentathol postcards.

While the cards always pushed pentathol, other interesting facts can be gleaned from the messages—e.g., the 1963 card from a divided Berlin states that, “here in West Berlin (as in every major city outside the Iron Curtain) PENTATHOL is known, trusted, and used.” That comment prompts the question: What was the induction agent of choice behind the Curtain?

Philatelists and those interested in the history of anesthesia, especially the commercial aspects, will find this little known (considering the volume of cards mailed) method of advertising entertaining. The front-and-backs of 88 cards from 63 countries are reproduced.

Norig Ellison, MD

Professor of Anesthesia

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA 19104

© 2005 International Anesthesia Research Society