Hannah Steinberg


Of the ‘magic pills’ that were all the rage during the 1950s’ pharmacological revolution, few were as popular as Drinamyl, better known as “purple hearts’, a blueish, triangular tablet that combined a sedative and a stimulant. A hit with partygoers, particularly the northern soul aficionados because it kept them going through the night, it was also a popular anti-depressant. Sounds too good to be true? It was, as Hannah Steinberg found out.

Steinberg, who has died aged 95, discovered that drugs’ interactions with other drugs and with the chemicals produced by our own brain are unpredictable. “Whatever you administer, you may disturb something else as well,” she concluded, adding: “The drugs companies on the whole don’t like that concept.”

While conducting experiments on laboratory rats, Steinberg found that, when given Drinamyl the animals became hyperactive – because the barbiturate made the amphetamine even more powerful instead of neutralising it. She also discovered that the emotional situation of the subject – whether it was relaxed or stressed – profoundly influenced the result.

Later on in her career, she studied the emotional impact of exercise, showing that regular exercise increases well-being and enhances creativity, but that it can also become addictive, something which is widely accepted today.

Hannah Ruth Steinberg was the daughter of Marie Wein and Michael Steinberg, a well-to-do Vienna lawyer. At first, hers was a comfortable, middle-class upbringing but by the time she was 14 things turned nasty.

After she was shamed in front of her classmates as an example of an inferior race, her parents didn’t wait for the situation to get even worse and in December,1938 they put her on a train to England, one of the first children on the Kindertransport.

She was safe but with her only child gone, her mother felt there was nothing left for her and committed suicide. Her father made his way on foot to Italy where he sailed to Tel Aviv and a new life. The two lost touch and only met again, once, several years later.

Although she was able to stay with relatives in London and attended Putney High School, she was deeply unhappy, lonely and missing her mother. It was only after she was evacuated to Caversham,near Reading, and went to live with a school-friend’s family that she started to feel more settled and happy.

Determined to stand on her own two feet, she did a business course at Reading University, and took secretarial training. But secretarial work was dull and after toying with the idea of a French degree, she finally settled on psychology at UCL, graduating with a first in 1948.

Steinberg had found her true calling. With a keen interest in science, she joined UCL’s pharmacology department where she did a PhD on how nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas, affected the performance of cognitive tasks. Her students – who had been willing participants in the experiment – had great fun with it. Steinberg discovered that complex tasks were indeed negatively affected but that memory recall was improved.

The first psychologist in the pharmacology department, Steinberg was among the first in the world to hold the title of Reader in 1962 and then Professor (1970) in psychopharmacology. In 2002 the University of London awarded her an honorary doctorate of science.

After she retired in 1992 Steinberg took on the post of visiting professor in the psychology department of Middlesex University, where her partner, Elizabeth Sykes, was based. The two lived in Torriano Cottages, a conservation area in North London, but even in retirement Steinberg was still ready to fight for what she believed in.

When a proposed development threatened to spoil the area, she and Sykes took the matter to the High Court. They won, establishing the ‘Steinberg Principle’: that it’s not enough for a development in a conservation area to do no harm; to be acceptable, it needs to preserve or enhance it.

Sykes predeceased her in 2011.

julie carbonara

Hannah Ruth Steinberg, born March 16, 1924. Died December 11, 2019

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