A selection of sedatives, 2000.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
A selection of sedatives, 2000. Sedatives are drugs which have a calming effect. The oldest known sedative is probably alcohol, which has been in use for thousands of years; surgeons even used it as a general anaesthetic before the arrival of ether and chloroform. Barbiturates were synthesised in the 1890s and abused widely by the 1900s. The search for safer sedative and anxiety-reducing drugs began after the Second World War, eventually resulting in the discovery of a family of drugs known as benzodiazephines, which include Valium.