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Elixir Sulfanilamide: Death in Arkansas

Ruth-Jeanell-Long_Find-a-Grave_Darlene-WatsonThe FDA learned of one death in Arkansas as a result of its efforts to locate three pints of Massengill’s elixir, which had been shipped into the state from the company’s branch in Kansas City, Missouri. From the FDA’s St. Louis station, chief Austin E. Lowe directed Inspector Jesse A. Pitts to track down the outstanding bottles at Ola, Taylor, and Blevins and, most important, to account for their contents. (For a Google map of elixir shipments to Arkansas, click here.)

Beginning on October 20th, Pitts spent several days in Arkansas attempting to locate the at-large bottles of Elixir Sulfanilamide and to determine the outcomes of three prescriptions, which had been written by James E. Gentry, a physician from McCaskill (near Blevins). During repeated interviews, however, Dr. Gentry provided only vague or outrightly false information about one of his elixir-treated patients.

Despite this attempted deception, Pitts learned of an elixir-related death while investigating a local funeral on October 25th.

Ruth Jeanell Long, the seven-year-old daughter of a McCaskill farmer,* died on October 24th, the day before Inspector Pitts discovered her ongoing burial.

After Pitts confronted Dr. Gentry at the girl’s funeral, the doctor admitted that he had indeed prescribed Elixir Sulfanilamide to the decedent on October 8th, as treatment for a streptococcal skin infection. The Long girl died eight days after she stopped taking the elixir. Notably she was probably gravely ill as Pitts was attempting to identify Dr. Gentry’s vulnerable elixir-treated patients.

According to contemporaneous newspaper coverage in the Hope Star, Ruth Jeanell’s body was exhumed on October 26th, the day after her burial, for a postmortem examination. The autopsy findings were reportedly consistent with diethylene-glycol poisoning.

Her final resting place is in Friendship Cemetery in Hempstead County, Arkansas.

Primary sources: Bulletin from A. E. Lowe to Chief, Central District. October 20, 1937; Special Report from A. E. Lowe to Chief, Central District. October 26, 1937; General Report from A. E. Lowe to Chief, Central District. October 27, 1937. All in FDA historical records (AF1258). Rockville, MD.

A brief account of the investigation of Ruth Jeanell Long is also given in Young JH. Sufanilamide and diethylene glycol. In: Parascandola J, Whorton JC, eds. Chemistry and Modern Society: Historical Essays in Honor of Aaron J. Ihde. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society; 1983:105-125.

Image of Ruth Jeanell Long’s gravestone by Darlene Watson at “Find a Grave.”

* Simon Monroe Long.