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Pentothal Postcards Book Review

by George Griffenhagen, September, 2005
(originally appearing in Topical Times, September-October 2005, p.74-75)


PENTOTHAL POSTCARDS. By David C. Lai, M.D. Mark Batty Publisher, 6050 Boulevard East, Suite 2H, West New York, NJ 07093. 9-1/4" x 6-1/4" Hard bound. 190 pages. 2005.

Between 1954 and 1968, North Chicago-based Abbott Laboratories mailed over 170 different picture postcards from about 80 different countries to hundreds of physicians and other health care providers in the U.S. and other countries to promote the use of their anesthetic Sodium Pentothal. These so-called "Dear Doctor" postcards, illustrated with colorful and often exotic scenes, were produced, labeled, stamped, and mailed in the local country. The objective was two fold: to impart the "wish you were here" message, and to convince the recipient that "Pentothal is one of the few names recognized almost everywhere that medicine is practiced."

Two German scientists (Emil Fischer and Josef von Mering) joined forces to give the world in 1903 a new class of anesthetics called Barbiturates. Within a few years, other scientists began to study these barbiturates that eventually evolved into some 1,500 derivatives of barbituric acid whose differences and value depended on the promptness and duration of hypnosis. In 1936 Ernest Volwiler at Abbott Laboratories introduced Thiopental, one of these derivatives of barbituric acid, which Abbott trademarked as Pentothal. The agent rapidly gained acceptance as an intravenous anesthetic and over 5,000 published reports on Pentothal Sodium appeared in almost every country in the civilized world. But as Pentothal approached the expiration of Abbott's patent protection, there was a vigorous exploration of methods to protect the franchise created over the years. One of the promotional efforts was the "Round the World" postcard campaign.

Dr. Lai's book provides original size color illustrations of both the picture and message side of more than 80 of these "Dear Doctor" postcards. They feature such exotic scenes as a "Straw Market" in Jamaica; "Iquaza Falls" in Argentina; "Corfe Castle" in England; the "Parthenon" in Athens; "Taj Mahal" in India; the "Dome of the Rock" in Jerusalem; "Ayers Rock" in Australia; and a "Snake Charmer with Cobra" in Ceylon. A copy of Dr. Lai's book can be obtained on amazon.com for $16.47.

The collecting of these "Dear Doctor Postcards" has become so popular that a website has been established by Tom Fortunato at . It includes a checklist and a bibliography of earlier articles relating to these unique postcards. Your reviewer is proud of the fact that he authored the earliest such article which was published in the October 1984 issue of Scalpel & Tongs, periodical of the ATA Medical Subjects Unit.