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October 12th, 2012
Bartee Haile: Texas woman one of 107 killed by poisonous drug

This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE

A Madisonville woman died on Oct. 15, 1937 after taking a poisonous but perfectly legal drug, prescribed by doctors and sold over-the-counter by pharmacists, that was blamed for 107 confirmed deaths in 15 states over a six-week period.

Salesmen for the S.E. Massengill Company of Bristol, Tennessee reported customers were clamoring for a liquid version of the miracle drug sulfanilamide. Samuel Evans Massengill, a licensed physician, assigned the rush job to his chief chemist, who discovered sulfanilamide dissolved in a drug called diethylene glycol.

This was no secret in pharmaceutical circles. What was not as well known was the fact that sulfanilamide and diethylene glycol were a toxic combination. The Massengill chemist would have found this out, too, had he been given the time to conduct a few simple tests.

But the boss wanted the product pronto, and the lab rat wanted to stay on Dr. Massengill’s good side. So he whipped up a 240-gallon batch of the concoction christened Elixir Sulfanilamide, and in no time flat it was flying off the shelves of drugstores throughout the South and Midwest.

People started dropping like flies. A total of 358 became deathly ill, and nearly a third perished from the poison.

Hardly a day went by in September and October 1937 that Elixir Sulfanilamide did not take a life. The federal government finally intervened not because the Tennessee toxin was keeping undertakers hopping but on the technical grounds it was incorrectly labeled.

Dr. Massengill was telling the truth, when he indignantly informed the press that he had broken no law. The Food and Drug Act of 1906 required no testing whatsoever before a drug was sold to a trusting public.

While his superior evidently had no trouble sleeping, the company chemist could not live with the knowledge that his negligence had caused so many unnecessary deaths. Pushed over the edge by guilt, he committed suicide.

“Patent medicine” came over on the Mayflower. English colonists landed with patents issued by the king, which gave them the right to make and sell medicine in the New World. Taking a page out of the mother country’s rule book, applicants for American patents never had to show that their alleged remedies were not health hazards or actually worked.

Patent medicine was very popular in the nineteenth century, when the majority of Americans either had no access to proper medical care or could not afford it. Cure-alls with strange names like Hamlin’s Wizard Oil and Widow Read’s Ointment for the Itch were harmless, but others contained highly addictive additives such as alcohol, opium and cocaine.

Early advertisements for Coca-Cola claimed the tasty beverage could banish “a thousand and one indescribable bad feelings” and did not try to hide the fact that cocaine was an ingredient. Teetotalers, who would have sooner sawed off an arm than take a drink, wound up addicted to cough syrups sold at the corner drugstore.

With the support of President Teddy Roosevelt and practically every civic-minded organization in the country, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, head of the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry, mounted a campaign to stamp out medical frauds and to set stringent standards for drug makers. But by the time congress got through watering down the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the landmark legislation was a hollow shell.

During the dangerous decades that followed, Americans were completely at the mercy of careless and unscrupulous medicine and cosmetics manufacturers. Thousands of women were blinded by the dye in their mascara. Middle-aged men hoping to recapture their youth with “certified radium water” suffered a hideous death as their skeletons disintegrated.

Coming on the heels of so many horror stories, the Elixir Sulfanilamide scandal touched a national nerve. The outcry rattled the rafters in Washington and forced fearful politicians to promise a new and improved food and drug law.

The patent medicine crowd, pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies and like-minded special interests did not go down without a fight. Apple growers and canners, for example, denounced proposed limits on insecticide residue as un-American.

But an outraged public was not to be denied, and the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act sailed through congress. For the first time manufacturers had to test each and every medication as well as convince government watchdogs of their safety. Furthermore, federal enforcers were finally empowered to prevent the sale of any product that threatened the well-being of the consumer.

The crying shame of it all was that 107 innocent individuals had to give their lives to get the reform ball rolling.


San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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