Pharmacy's Past: The Soothing Syrup Known for Causing Death in Thousands of Babies

MARCH 21, 2019

This article is part of a series exploring the history of pharmacy.

Charlotte N. Winslow, a pediatric nurse, originally created Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup as a cure-all for fussy babies. The syrup was first produced in 1849 by her son-in-law, Jeremiah Curtis, and his partner Benjamin Perkins, in Bangor, Maine. It was widely marketed in North America and the United Kingdom.1

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was known as a patent medication (this term often refers to a product that was marketed in the United States during this time but typically did not prove efficacy or safety).1 The concoction was used for babies who were crying, teething, or had dysentery, for which the opioid effect of the syrup caused constipation, to treat the diarrhea.2

The syrup contained morphine 65 mg per ounce, as well as alcohol. One teaspoonful had the morphine content equivalent to 20 drops of laudanum (opium tincture); and it was recommended that babies 6 months old receive no more than 2-3 drops of laudanum.1 

One teaspoonful contained enough morphine to kill the average child. Many babies went to sleep after taking the medicine and never woke up again, leading to the syrup's nickname: the baby killer.1

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was hugely popular. In an 1868 court summary, Curtis reported selling more than 1.5 million bottles of the remedy annually.2

Because many caregivers did not link the death to the syrup, or may have not revealed using the syrup, there is no official statistic of the number of children that died. Estimates, however, put the number at thousands of children who died from overdose, or from addiction and withdrawal.1

The Pure Food and Drug Act instituted in the United States in 1906 forced companies to disclose the active ingredients on drug packaging. Companies also had to ensure that the purity level of the drugs was not below the levels established by the US Pharmacopeia or National Formulary. A similar law, the Food and Drugs Act, was passed in Canada in 1920 in a similar attempt, and also to ensure that drugs were properly marketed.1

Prior to the Pure Food and Drug Act, most drug labeling did not state ingredients. Sometimes, the people creating these patent medicines did not understand the full effects of the ingredients that they used. Companies such as Mrs. Winslow’s produced a plethora of advertising, found in newspapers and calendars, and became a household name. At the time, it was generally unknown how dangerous and addictive morphine was, and with the convincing marketing, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was very appealing to exhausted caregivers as a cure-all for fussy and teething  babies.

Over time, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was forced to remove morphine from their formulation, and remove the word 'soothing' from the brand name. Despite these major changes to the recipe and name, as well as the denunciation of the product by the American Medical Association in 1911, the syrup was still sold until the 1930s.1

The loss of thousands of children as a result of the wide dispensing of this syrup, and other drugs like it, is a tragic piece of history that led to many important changes intended to ensure that such a tragedy does not repeat itself.

 

References

  1. Museum Of Healthcare: Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup: The Baby Killer. https://museumofhealthcare.wordpress.com/2017/07/28/mrs-winslows-soothing-syrup-the-baby-killer/. Published July 28, 2017. Accessed March 9, 2019

  2. The Wood Library-Museum: Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. https://www.woodlibrarymuseum.org/museum/item/529/mrs.-winslow%27s-soothing-syrup Accessed March 9, 2019



Karen Berger, PharmD
Karen Berger, PharmD
Karen Berger, PharmD, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy in 2001. She has worked in community pharmacies for over 17 years as a Pharmacist in Charge, staff, and floater pharmacist for a large chain. Currently, she is a pharmacist at an independent pharmacy in Northern NJ. She can be reached at karenmichelleberger@gmail.com
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