Poisoning Children: Some Horrible History

Pardon the sensationalism in the title of this post, but be assured that it is accurate. I am writing about a tragedy in which a company made poisonous cough syrup, killed children, and largely, got away with it.

More than 100 people were killed, back before companies had to safety test their formula before putting them on the market.

It was 1937, and the deaths and the scandal prompted reform of the laws regulating medicine and cosmetics, requiring companies to perform animal testing and to send the results to the FDA before sales.

The whole sordid, tragic tale can be found here, on Speakeasy Science, a blog which I heartily recommend to anyone with an interest in the history of science. A shorter take on the elixir sulfanilimide tragedy can be found on Wikipedia.

Critically, however, the same poisonous substance in the cough syrup has sickened and killed people many times since. It’s a sweet-tasting organic compound called diethylene glycol, and it’s been responsible for a number of poisonings, as recently as 2008.

Sometimes it seems like we just keep making the same mistakes over and over again.