Snake Oil Salesmen Part 2

This week’s episode is all about what happens when snake oil salesmen become doctors in dangerous ways. These pseudo doctors became a main reason the FDA was formed and given teeth to go after harmful medicine. Today we are going to talk about the dangerous medicines of the 1800s and early 1900s. We will also discuss some of those medications that have stuck around to today.

The Formation of the FDA

In the late 1800s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had a special division assigned to investigate food fraud and pharmaceutical claims. The Division of Chemistry in the USDA later became the Bureau of Chemistry. Harvard Washington Wiley was appointed Chief Chemist in 1993. Wiley became a major activist for food and drug regulation. 

The public supported these movements due to journalists that did their part to get the horrors of food and drug production out to the general public. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, was one of these major publications during this time. I also have to add that it is a horrifying book about the meat packing industry.

In 1901 a diphtheria vaccine that had been developed was tainted with tetanus. These vaccines were distributed and led to the deaths of 12 kids in Missouri. This, and other incidents like it, led President Theodore Roosevelt to sign the Pure Food and Drug Act into law in 1906. This law was also known as the “Wiley Act” because of Wiley’s activism. This act formed the Food and Drug Administration. 

Pure Food and Drug Act

This act gave the government and law enforcement some teeth in handling allegations regarding food fraud and false claims made by those who produced patent medicine. The act prohibited the interstate transport of food that had been adulterated. There were similar penalties for adulterated drugs where the strength , quality or purity of the active ingredient wasn’t clearly listed on the label. However, they still lacked the authority to do much more than that. 

If you remember back to last week’s episode, the Bureau of Chemistry examined Snake Oil and concluded that it had violated the Food and Drug Act because it contained no actual snake oil. 

Journalists and consumer advocacy groups continued their relentless assault on products that were allowed under the 1906 legislation, but were in reality quite dangerous to humans. There were worthless cures for diabetes and tuberculosis, a mascara lash lure that caused blindness and I’m not kidding you, radioactive drinks. However, none of these complaints were able to produce legislation with enough support to get through congress. However, that all changed in 1937.

Snake Oil Salesmen At Their Worst: Elixir Sulfanilamide

In 1937 the S. E. Massengill Company created their own preparation of sulfanilamide using diethylene glycol as the solvent. Diethylene glycol, or DEG, is poisonous to humans and other mammals. The company’s chief pharmacist and chemist, Harold Watkins, was not aware of this. Elixir Sulfanilamide was born.

Remember at the time there were no regulations on drugs and pharmaceuticals. There was no oversight from the government. Animal testing was not required by law before drugs were released, so these harmful effects weren’t widely known. Harold Watkins mixed raspberry flavoring into the drug and they were off to the races. 

In September 1937, the company began distributing the medication. By October 11, the American Medical Association received a report of several deaths related to this new medication. The Food and Drug Administration began an extensive search for a cause. They discovered that the DEG solvent was responsible for the fatal effects of the drug. At least 100 deaths were blamed on the medication. 

The fallout from this ordeal was tremendous. People wanted answers and justice. The owner of the S.E. Massengill Company was pressed to admit some measure of responsibility. He infamously answered, “We have been supplying a legitimate professional demand and not once could have foreseen the unlooked-for results. I do not feel that there was any responsibility on our part.” Harold Watkins committed suicide while awaiting trial. 

Grieving Families Petition for Change

A grieving mother wrote to President Roosevelt and described the death of her daughter: “The first time I ever had occasion to call in a doctor for Joan and she was given Elixir of Sulfanilamide. All that is left to us is the caring for her little grave. Even the memory of her is mixed with sorrow for we can see her little body tossing to and fro and hear that little voice screaming with pain and it seems as though it would drive me insane… It is my plea that you will take steps to prevent such sales of drugs that will take little lives and leave such suffering behind and such a bleak outlook on the future as I have tonight.” 

That is deep. I can feel this woman’s pain reading this letter. You have to remember that many families could tell a similar story regarding their children and loved ones thanks to this medication.

No Heavy Punishment for S.E. Massengill Company

So what happened to the S.E. Massengill Company? The government used the power that they had under the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act. They found that they had broken the rules because they called their product an elixir even though it contained no ethanol. They were hit with a minimum fine. A slap on the wrist for being directly responsible for the deaths of over 100 patients. However, that is all that the government could do. The company had broken no other laws.

The public outcry was intense. Furthermore, there was no way congress could deny it this time. It would be political suicide to continue to ignore the dangers that some medication could present. In 1938 they passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. This significantly increased the FDA’s power to regulate drugs. Part of this legislation required companies to perform animal safety tests on their proposed new drugs and submit the data to the FDA before being allowed to market their products. Finally, the FDA had teeth to pursue some of these fraudulent and dangerous medications.

Other Dangerous Patent Medicines

There were a host of other dangerous patent medicines. Many contained harmful ingredients like chloroform, mercury, lead, arsenic, tar and radium. The problem with these snake oil salesmen is that they didn’t understand how their medications would impact the body. They thought they could make a quick buck without any harmful consequences. That simply wasn’t the case. Journalists investigated and held them accountable. Government got their act together and began legislating which gave the FDA teeth to go after these guys. Finally, not all patent medicines were harmful. Most were just not effective. However, there were a few that have stuck around to today.

Patent Medicines That Survived

There are several brands that were popular in the past and managed to find some longevity. Not all manufacturers were snake oil salesmen. Instead of continuing to harp on pointless health claims, they rebranded and narrowed the focus of what their product could actually be used for. In the case of soda manufacturers, health claims were abandoned entirely. As I dive into this next segment, I’m sure you are going to recognize some of these brands that have become household names over the years.

Most soda brands that were produced in the 1800s were patent medicines. They had various health claims that really held no water. Furthermore, most of their medicinal ingredients have been removed over the years. Now they exist as beverages we might drink at any meal. Coca Cola, 7-Up, Hires Root Beer, Dr Pepper, Moxie and Pepsi all had their roots in patent medicine.

Fletcher’s Laxatives is another medication that dropped their excessive and dubious health claims. Instead they focused on being a powerful laxative. I mentioned the craziness that happened with cough syrup between morphine, opiates and chloroform all being early ingredients. A popular cough drop has survived the test of time and is still around today. Don’t worry, Smith Brothers Cough Drops do not contain any ingredients that will kill you or harm your health.

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Snake Oil Salesmen: How Patent Medicines Changed Food Forever (Part 2)
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