Thorazine’s Many Faces

You have probably never thought of the “classic” schizophrenia drug Thorazine (the trade name for chlorpromazine) as a treatment for ulcers, or menopause, or psoriasis, or “hyperkinetic” children, or arthritis, or bursitis, or asthma, or cancer, or alcoholism, or even vomiting. But, perhaps surprisingly, it has been advertised over the years for all of these conditions. You can see the ads for yourself in a new web gallery set up by the Bonkers Institute.

And the Thorazine collection is only the beginning. There are also historical ads for commercially available heroin (from Bayer), Stelazine, and a wide variety of others. It is truly amazing how any single chemical can be marketed in any number of ways until it catches on with physicians in one particular way or another.

Chlorpromazine is just a major tranquilizer (even though it is often marketed as an “anti-psychotic”) and so it has potential in any situation in which a tranquilizer may be indicated. But that doesn’t make it a specific treatment for any specific condition. As Mind Hacks put it in its item about this same collection:

It’s a classic marketing technique to sell products as solutions to problems, but we simply don’t understand enough about the neurobiology of mental illness to design medication to selectively treat a specific diagnosis.

In other words, labels like ‘antidepressant’, ‘antipsychotic’ or ‘mood stabiliser’ tell us next to nothing about the action of the drug and only inform us how they are used.

It’s like the word ‘shampoo’. While the product may have a few tweaks that make it better for washing hair, it doesn’t mean it cleans your hair and nothing else. That’s just how this particular soap product is used and sold.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

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