While nowadays, crusaders are warning parents of the dangers of letting kids use opioids for pain, not too long ago, it was normal to give children a little heroin for minor aches and ailments.
One such medication was Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which was recommended to help ease the pain of teething tots in the 1800s. According to the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware, the remedy contained one grain (or 65 mg) of morphine in each fluid ounce and “effectively quieted restless infants and small children.”
The syrup originated in New York back in the 1840s and, reportedly, parents didn’t even realize that it contained morphine. They paid for their ignorance and, as the American Medical Times bluntly put it in 1860, were “relieved of all further care of their infants through the magically soothing effects” of the drug.
In his 2015 book Dreamland on the opioid epidemic, author Sam Quinones says that such “patent medicines” using morphine and opium often were sold as miracle cures, using quaint, home remedy-type names. Sales of such drugs “exploded” over time, from just $3.5 million in 1859 to almost $75 million by the turn of the century.
Word got out about such aggressive media campaigns. The aforementioned Medical Times article takes the New York Examiner to task for its publishing of such “quack advertisements.” “A very large number of children are killed annually in this city by patent medicines,” the publication writes. “They are exhibited without any knowledge of their properties, or their power to allay the symptoms for which they are given. I ask, how many hundred infants are destroyed by the various vermifuges alone that are advertised?”
Despite those stern warnings, publications were still aggressively advertising concoctions like Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup 20 years later, like this one in the 1880 Carroll Herald, which read:
“ADVICE TO MOTHERS. Are you broken of your rest by a sick child suffering with the pain of cutting teeth? Go at once to a chemist, and get a bottle of MRS. WINSLOW’S SOOTHING SYRUP. It will relieve the poor sufferer immediately; it produces natural, quiet sleep, by relieving the child from pain, and the little cherub awakes ‘as bright as a button.’ It has been long in use, and is highly recommended by medical men; it is very pleasant to take; it soothes the child; it softens the gums, allays all pain, relieves wind, regulates the bowels, and is the best-known remedy for Dysentery and Diarrhea, whether arising from teething or other cause. Be sure and ask for MRS. WINSLOW’S SOOTHING SYRUP. No mother should be without it.”
The American Medical Association further questioned the syrup in a 1921 publication of the second edition of Nostrums and Quackery, delving into questionable medications and medical practices. In it, the publication said that information had been filed against the makers of the syrup, Anglo-American Drug Co., in June 1915 for false claims of the drug’s effectiveness. The federal authorities reportedly agreed, saying the company sold the drug, despite its dangerous nature, “knowingly and in reckless and wanton disregard of their truth of falsity.”
Anglo-American was fined all of $100 and subsequently removed opiates from the drug. “The company has, apparently, made up its mind that its old methods of doing business are out of joint with the times,” the AMA wrote. “The product now on the market is, apparently, a mixture of carminatives and laxatives.”