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Elixir Sulfanilamide: Deaths of 1937


In the fall of 1937, more than 100 US citizens*—many of whom were children—died after consuming Elixir Sulfanilamide, a raspberry-flavored antibiotic syrup manufactured by The S. E. Massengill Company of Bristol, Tennessee. The new, difficult-to-dissolve antibiotic, sulfanilamide, was mixed with the solvent diethylene glycol, a known toxin, by the company’s uninformed head chemist, Harold Cole Watkins. The company tested the elixir only for its appearance and palatability before its nationwide distribution. The catastrophic event prompted the passage of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. (For a comprehensive account of this event, please see my book, Elixir: The American Tragedy of a Deadly Drug, which is available in print or as in ebook through Amazon.)

The following state-by-state list of Elixir Sulfanilamide victims is compiled from official records housed at the US Food and Drug Administration (AF files) and the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Data from these records are supplemented and cross-checked with information from other primary sources (eg, census records, death records, FDA oral histories), secondary sources (eg, contemporaneous newspaper reports), and communication with victims’ living relatives (by e-mail or phone).

The effort is intended to be a kind of memorial to those who died as a result of the catastrophe and an homage to those who attempted to avert further disaster—like the scores of FDA inspectors who attempted to confiscate the elixir in an age when mass communication was limited. The reader’s indulgence is requested for what may resemble a patchwork construction: Because this list is a continuing work in progress, newly discovered and rediscovered information, as it emerges, may need to be incorporated for clarity, accuracy, and completeness.

For those individuals whose family members, friends, or colleagues were directly affected by the event, your input and corrections are urged by contacting me at barbara dot martin at bmartinmd dot com.

Alabama (9 confirmed, 2 possible)

Arkansas (1 confirmed)

California (1 confirmed)

Florida (2 confirmed, 1 possible)

Georgia (11 confirmed, 2 possible)

Illinois and Missouri** (8 confirmed, 1 possible)

Mississippi (23 confirmed, 1 possible, 2 unlikely)

North Carolina (2 confirmed, 1 probable)

Ohio (1 confirmed)

Oklahoma (11 confirmed)

South Carolina (9 confirmed)

Tennessee (6 confirmed, 1 unlikely)

Texas (7 confirmed, 2 possible, 1 unlikely)

Virginia and West Virginia (2 confirmed, 2 probable)

For an overview of the confiscation roundup and final assessment, as well as an examination of race as it applies to the Elixir Sulfanilamide tragedy, go here.

* After a systematic review of the FDA records describing the 109 deaths reported after the consumption of Elixir Sulfanilamide, it can be concluded with reasonable certainty that the product was responsible for at least 96 deaths. Another 9 deaths were possibly due to the product. Four deaths were probably not caused by Massengill’s elixir; this determination is based on the FDA’s conclusion (without further case details being provided), or because renal dysfunction was not present before death. Among the 96 confirmed or probable elixir victims, 31 (32%) were younger than 18 years of age.
** Illinois and Missouri are combined because the elixir-related deaths in these states occurred within the greater St. Louis-East St. Louis area. In addition, several victims received their elixir prescription in Illinois (East St. Louis) but died in a Missouri (St. Louis) hospital.

For any corrections, clarifications, or additions, please e-mail barbara dot martin at bmartinmd dot com.