A 19th century ad for Winslow's Soothing Syrup shows happy children and a resting mother. The morphine-laced patent medicine was invented in Maine and sold by Bangor druggist Jeremiah Curtis. It made him a millionaire and killed an unknown number of children. Credit: Archive | Public Domain

BANGOR, Maine — In September, police arrested a local woman suspected of rubbing heroin on her toddler’s gums to help the child sleep. The 1-year-old later died from acute fentanyl intoxication, according to the State Medical Examiner’s office.

In 19th-century America, druggists openly sold millions of bottles of opiate and alcohol-laced patent medicines for consoling fussy babies. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was one of the most successful — and lethal — potions on the market. It was linked to untold numbers of child deaths and the American Medical Association labeled it a “baby killer.”

Pharmacist Jerimiah Curtis invented the dangerous concoction in Bangor and it made him a millionaire.

Credit: Public domain image

The real Mrs. Winslow

Most of what is known about the syrup’s origins come from its own advertising copy. It may, or may, not be true. The Bangor Historical Society has no reliable information at all, according to curator Matthew Bishop.

There was definitely a real Mrs. Charlotte Winslow. She lived in Maine and is thought to have been a nurse midwife. Winslow supposedly devised her syrup, administering it to the children in her care, including her own daughters. One of them, Lucy Winslow, married Curtis.

He and his partner, Benjamin Perkins, began mass producing Winslow’s wonder drug in their downtown storefront near the river in 1845. It was an immediate hit, fueled by relentless newspaper advertising, recipe books, calendars and lithographic cards suitable for framing. They claimed it eased the pain of teething, among many other maladies.

“Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup should always be used for children teething,” read one advertisement printed in English, German and French. “It Soothes the child, softens the gums, allays all pain, cures wind, colic, and is the best remedy for diarrhoea. Twenty-Five Cents a bottle.”

The syrup’s active — and addictive — ingredient was morphine, suspended in a tincture of alcohol. Each fluid ounce contained 65mg of the powerful opiate.

The medicine’s dosage directions recommended six to 10 drops for newborns and half a teaspoon for 6-month-olds. Children older than six months were to get one teaspoon, three or four times a day.

Assuming parents kept to the guidelines, some toddlers were getting 260mg of morphine in 24 hours.

“The history of American medicine and American pharmacy is just shockingly scary,” said Professor Robert McCarthy, dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of New England.

McCarthy teaches a course about the history of American pharmacy at the university.

Though definitely not safe, McCarthy points out that Winslow’s Syrup was probably effective at stopping teething pain and diarrhea. In addition the sedative effects, opiates tend to cause constipation.

“When we have patients on high doses of opiates we have to usually give them a stool softener,” McCarthy said. “And the syrup probably zonked these poor kids out.”

Any benefits gained from the drug, however, were not worth the risk of administering narcotics to babies.

“It was really very dangerous,” McCarthy said. “The thing you worry about with high-dose morphine is respiratory depression — and you combine that with the alcohol, which is also a respiratory depressant. It’s a really bad situation.”

Credit: Troy R. Bennett

Progress in a bottle

Winslow’s was just one of thousands of cure-all tonics flourishing in the later half of the 19th century. The so-called “patent medicines” were seen as signs of modern progress at the time.

Before bottled elixirs like Winslow’s, it was not uncommon for doctors to slit babies’ gums open with a scalpel to “relieve” teething pain. Other common cures for various illnesses included leeches, bleeding and gargling mercury.

“Some of them were truly horrendous,” McCarthy said. “George Washington was bled multiple times before he died. He probably died of strep throat — and the bleeding.”

By contrast, cures in a bottle seemed modern and painless but these were the days before the Food and Drug Administration. There were no laws regulating the sale of narcotics and medicines were not required to disclose what they contained.

Most mothers who dosed their babies with morphine didn’t know what they were doing. Many of the children died but it’s unknown just how many children Winslow’s Syrup killed. Parents didn’t know the medication was dangerous and the deaths were often attributed to the underlying symptoms of teething and diarrhea.

Credit: Public domain image

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.

The journal 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.”

Another 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.

Winslow’s legacy

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.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.