ELIXIR by Barbara J. Martin


The American Tragedy of a Deadly Drug
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A neurologist details the plight of a dangerous antibiotic potion in this medical history.

Martin spent 10 years researching the saga of a little-known concoction called Elixir Sulfanilamide. Prescribed for ailments such as strep throat and gonorrhea, this liquid mixture caused roughly 100 known deaths, mainly throughout the American Southeast and Midwest, in 1937. Martin opens with a history of a pharmacological revolution, circa the early 1900s, when chemists from all the major pharmaceutical companies were eager to devise the next miracle cure. The book then details, with language and specifics best deciphered by science enthusiasts, how the rogue chemist Harold Cole Watkins of the S.E. Massengill Company, in Bristol, Tenn., combined sulfanilamide, a safe and widely prescribed antibiotic, with diethylene glycol, a known toxin that often produced a deadly outcome when consumed. In play-by-play fashion, Martin chronicles the painstaking removal of the lethal tincture from various states, which took place at a time when forms of communication were limited to newspaper, radio, telegram and even knocking on patients’ doors. The book feels like a compendium of facts, including physicians’ and patients’ names, notable dates and common symptoms, which invariably were abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and anuria. It does address the larger issues of the times, including wildly lax drug regulations, lenient physician and pharmacist accountability, and problems locating patients because of incomplete or nonexistent patient records. The last 100 pages detail Elixir Sulfanilamide deaths and their distribution by state and race. Martin veers from the dissertationlike structure of the book when she discusses individual victims, including one mother who wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (whose own son was successfully treated with sulfanilamide tablets) about the loss of her daughter. Political and legal implications are also addressed, particularly as they relate to the S.E. Massengill Company, the Food and Drug Administration laws, the victims’ families, and the physicians and druggists involved. Some doctors denied having written prescriptions for the elixir, while some pharmacists sold them without a prescription. To contemporize the event, Martin lists countries that have continued to suffer diethylene glycol poisoning, including China in 2006.

A comprehensive account of an American drug calamity.

ISBN: 978-0615898179
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Barkerry Press
Program: Kirkus Indie
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