Around the turn of the century, many so-called medicinal “cures” were either ineffective and/or contained dangerous chemicals and drugs like opium. Instead of curing, they intoxicated and sedated, causing countless thousands of accidental overdoses.
Laws in those days didn’t require manufacturers of these “cure all” elixirs to list their ingredients. The focus was on producing eye catching advertisements and packaging to draw customers in, especially women.
One notorious patent medicine was “Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup”, which started production in America in 1849 before reaching a global market. With their beautifully illustrated advertisements, Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was marketed to mothers with babies or young children, who the product promised to relieve from the pain of teething. Unbeknownst to the consumer was that this product was potentially deadly, as it contained morphine.
An advertisement published in the Maryborough Chronicle in 1915 gives the dosages –
“For a child under one month old, 6 to 10 drops; three months old – half a teaspoonful and six months old and upwards – a teaspoonful three or four times daily”.
Accidental deaths were not uncommon. In December 1896, the Darling Downs Gazette published an article entitled ‘Dead through Winslow’s Soothing Syrup’, which reported details from the inquest of an infant named Harry Fietell, whose mother regularly gave the child doses of the syrup to induce sleep. Upon examining the body a doctor determined the child had succumbed to narcotic poisoning, which was later confirmed during a post-mortem.
In September 1891, surgeon and politician, William Frederick Taylor, in a speech before the Queensland Legislative Council railed against the dangers of patent medicines.
‘We have a very high infant mortality in this country, and no doubt a great deal of that is owing to these medicines. Medical men are constantly being called in, and finding infants in a state of syncope, coma, pupils contracted, and evidently cases of opium poisoning. After a great deal of difficulty, the mother or nurse may be induced to admit that the child has had a dose of some infants’ preservative – possibly Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which is largely used, or Steedman’s powders, which contain morphia. Hon. gentlemen will see that if we are to save the lives of these little creatures we must place some restriction upon the sale of these medicines which contain opium or poisons of that sort”
In 1911, the American Medical Association published Nostrums And Quackery and categorised Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup under “Baby Killers”