Behind the Scenes – Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup

Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup

 I have noticed that the overdosing of paracetamol to young children has hit the headlines again.  Jane Hanson of  The Sunday Telegraph wrote “half of all parents give their children paracetamol when they don’t need it – and many get the dose wrong.”

Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup Bottle: Queensland Museum

Well I am glad these overdosed children and their parents didn’t live in Brisbane in the late 1800s and early 1900s, or the outcome may have been far worse.  At this time, chemists sold a medicine called Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. The syrup was the invention of Mrs. Charlotte N. Winslow and first marketed by her son-in-law Jeremiah Curtis and Benjamin A. Perkins in Bangor, Maine, USA in 1849. Their advertising said “it is perfectly harmless and pleasant to taste, it produces natural quiet sleep by relieving the child from pain”.  However, often parents were “relieved of all further care of their infants” through its use. ” (American Medical Times 1860)

The formula consists of Morphine Sulfate (An opiate analgesic related to heroin), sodium carbonate (water softener), spirits foeniculi (an alcohol that seems to be only associated with this product), and aqua ammonia (a cleaning agent). I find it had to believe that it was “pleasant to taste”.

Courtesy of the US National Library of Medicine, here’s an 1885 advertising image produced by Meyer, Merkell & Ottmann in New York.

The product was widely marketed through newspapers, parenting information and even postcards and found favour with solders returning from the battlefields of World War I.

It was eventually withdrawn from sale here in Queensland after State Government investigation into child deaths associated with the medicine.

The results eventually contributed to the strict controls we have in our pharmacies today and the process drug companies must complete before their products are certified.