“Cure-All” Medication Caused Death in Thousands of Babies

April 29, 2021
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

Pharmacy Times, April 2021, Volume 89, Issue 04
Pages: 56

Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, created in 1849, contained morphine and alcohol and was widely distributed.

Charlotte N. Winslow, a pediatric nurse, originally created Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup as a cure-all for fussy babies.

The syrup was first commercially produced in 1849 by Winslow’s 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 a “patent medicine,” an over-the-counter product that was marketed in the United States but whose efficacy or safety had typically not been proved.1 The concoction was used for a variety of conditions, including crying, teething, and dysentery. The syrup contained morphine, an opioid, which can cause constipation, to treat the diarrhea.2

In addition to 65 mg of morphine per ounce, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup also contained alcohol. One teaspoonful had the morphine content equivalent to 20 drops of laudanum (opium tincture), and at the time it was recommended that babies aged 6 months receive no more than 2 to 3 drops of laudanum. One teaspoonful of Mrs. Winslow’s 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, but it is estimated that thousands of children died from overdose or from addiction and withdrawal.1

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

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

Over time, regulators forced the removal of morphine from the Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup formula and the word “soothing” from the name. Despite these changes, as well as the denunciation of the product by the American Medical Association in 1911, the syrup was sold until the 1930s.1

The deaths of thousands of children because of the wide distribution of this syrup and other drugs like it is a stunning piece of history that led to important changes intended to prevent a similar tragedy.

Karen Berger, PharmD, is a pharmacist at an independent pharmacy in northern New Jersey.

REFERENCES

  1. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup: The Baby Killer. Museum of Healthcare.July 28, 2017. Accessed April 1, 2021. https://museumofhealthcare.wordpress.com/2017/07/28/mrs-winslows-soothing-syrup-the-baby-killer/
  2. The Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup.Accessed April 1, 2021. https://www.woodlibrarymuseum.org/museum/item/529/mrs.-winslow%27s-soothing-syrup