The turning tide
The childrens’ deaths did not go unnoticed. By the 1880s, doctors and journalists were starting to crusade against Winslow’s and its contemporaries.
Headlines such as “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, another baby sacrificed” and “The slaughter of the innocents continues” began to appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In 1911, the organization added Winslow’s to its list of “baby killer” patent medicines.
told one story from Seattle where twin babies were found dead in their stroller. At first, the coroner suspected their mother had smothered them. But a doctor performed autopsies and found morphine in their system and the woman said she’d given them Winslow’s. They were ruled accidental deaths.
In an editorial, the Seattle Times said the syrup was so dangerous that it was “nonetheless, murder.”
journal article told of a baby’s death in Wyoming. Its mother, on advice from a neighbor, gave her irritable baby a teaspoon of Winslow’s one afternoon. By late evening, the baby could barely breathe.
“The limbs were cold. There were pinpoint pupils,” wrote the doctor called to the scene. “The child could not be aroused enough to swallow.”
The infant died that night. A coroner’s inquest, and the doctor, blamed Winslow’s.
In 1905, muckraking journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams began writing a weekly column in Collier’s Magazine called, “The Great American Fraud.” In it,
he detailed the deceit and death associated with unregulated patent medicines.
Adams included Winslow’s in his attacks.
In one column, he quoted a Detroit physician talking about the Bangor-born panacea: “The sight of a parent drugging a helpless infant into a semi-comatose condition is not an elevating one for this civilized age, and it is a very common practice.”
A California druggist wrote to Adams claiming he’d seen children become addicted to Winslow’s.
“I have a good customer, a married woman with five children, all under 10 years of age.” he wrote. “When her last baby was born, about a year ago, the first thing she did was to order a bottle of Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, and every week another bottle was bought at first, until now a bottle is bought every third day. Why? Because the baby has become habituated to the drug.”
It wasn’t just Winslow’s. Many popular products contained narcotics. At the time, Coca-Cola famously contained cocaine. A 2018 Smithsonian Magazine article called the era, “America’s first opioid epidemic.” In his 1998 book, “The Excruciating History of Dentistry,” James Wynbrandt called those days, “The golden age of drug abuse.”
Fueled by doctors and journalists like Adams, Congress finally passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. It required medicine labels to clearly disclose what they contained. Opiates weren’t actually regulated until the Harrison Act of 1914.
After that, Winslow’s dropped the morphine from its formula and the word “soothing” from it’s advertising. It remained on store shelves into the 1930s.
Curtis didn’t live long enough to see his product come under regulation and wane in the marketplace. He died a millionaire in 1883. He’s buried under an impressive family monument in a Bronx cemetery. Mrs. Winslow, his mother-in-law, lies under a simple stone in Albion, Maine.
Curtis and Perkins had moved their growing business to New York City in 1854. Curtis bought Perkins out in 1860 and by 1868 was selling 1.5 million bottles a year.
At $.25 a bottle, and accounting for inflation, that’s gross profit of almost $7 million.
In 1880, Curtis changed the operation’s name to the Anglo-American Drug Company. By then, they were also manufacturing Winslow’s in the United Kingdom and distributing it worldwide — endangering, and likely killing, babies on a global scale.
Robert McCarthy, dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of New England, will give a free lecture about the history of American pharmacy at the Waterville Historical Society at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday.