Remembering Marilyn Monroe’s Prescription Drug Overdose, 54 Years Later

By Victoria Kim 08/10/16

Fifty-four years after her tragic accidental overdose, Monroe's case remains a cautionary tale for doctors who prescribe an array of medications and patients who rely on them. 

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Remembering Marilyn Monroe’s Prescription Drug Overdose, 54 Years Later

On August 5, 1962, Hollywood screen siren Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her bedroom in Los Angeles at age 36. The official cause of death: acute barbiturate poisoning.  

Now, 54 years since her death, drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, largely due to the widespread abuse of prescription painkillers that has spiraled out of control over the last decade.

This past August 5, Dr. Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine and professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, wrote a column for PBS recounting Monroe’s last days and the role that drugs played in her life.

“Long before the opiate and opioid epidemics struck American life with such resounding force, there were plenty of other prescription drugs abused to excess with deadly results,” wrote Markel.

In Monroe’s case, she relied on a cache of sedatives, tranquilizers, barbiturates, amphetamines (for depression) and opiates, in combination with alcohol, to cope with the stress of her final years. Her last two films were commercial failures, Markel wrote, and she went through a divorce with the playwright Arthur Miller in 1961.

In addition to suffering from bipolar disorder, Monroe also dealt with some serious health issues throughout 1961. She underwent surgery for endometriosis and another for gallbladder disease. She also spent a short time in a mental ward for depression.

“What remains most cautionary to 21st century readers is that the majority of the substances Marilyn was abusing were prescribed to her by physicians, all of whom should have known better than to leave a mentally ill patient with such a large stash of deadly medications,” wrote Markel. Nevertheless, he said, it’s no surprise that a star of Monroe’s caliber was able to maintain her large drugs stash, even if her doctors resisted.

In the 2015 documentary Autopsy, it was revealed that Monroe’s doctor, Dr. Hyman Engelberg, provided her a new prescription for Nembutal just two days before her death, even though her other doctors had been trying to wean her off the barbiturate. Engelberg, who died in 2005, was accused of “signing her death sentence” by giving her access to the drug, especially given her history of suicide attempts using sedatives, and given the high risk of combining Nembutal and chloral hydrate (an old-fashioned sedative). 

The documentary concluded that on the night of her death, Monroe had taken her normal dose of chloral hydrate before she accidentally (or intentionally) overdosed on Nembutal. In her previous suicide attempts, she would allegedly call for help, but this time she lost consciousness before she could pick up the phone. According to her housekeeper, she was found “stretched across the bed and a hand hung limp on a telephone.” 

It's a sad story that's being played out again and again in present day America. Our experience with the opioid epidemic is already changing the way physicians approach pain management. But will it have any effect on how we dispense other medications?

“We have this culture of giving a pill for every problem, this culture of a quick fix,” Baltimore City Health Commissioner Leana Wen said in a CNN town hall in May. “And that’s something we have to change.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr

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