The barbiturates were the most versatile nervous system depressants available during the first half of the twentieth century. Small doses calm and produce sedation, higher doses induce sleep, and still higher doses produce surgical anesthesia. Beyond these doses—and particularly when washed down with alcohol—barbiturates are all too effective in causing irreversible coma.
Phenobarbital, a long-acting barbiturate introduced in 1912 under the trade name Luminal, was initially marketed for sedation and to induce sleep. That same year, German psychiatrist and neurologist Alfred Hauptmann administered phenobarbital to his epileptic patients to enable them (and him) to sleep through the night.
It worked, and much to his surprise, they experienced far fewer seizures during the daytime. Moreover, unlike the bromides—the principle antiseizure drugs at that time—phenobarbital did not cause excessive sedation. It was the most effective drug available for tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizures until 1938, when Dilantin, a far less sedating drug, displaced it.
Shown here, Grover Cleveland Alexander, one of major league baseball's greatest players, who suffered from epilepsy.