Soldier Sulfa

Gerhard Domagk

Gerhard Domagk.

Company chemist Harold Watkins dissolved the drug in a 10% solution of diethylene glycol mixed with raspberry flavoring and sweetened with saccharin. Over the next two months 105 people died from liver and kidney damage caused by the solvent. Watkins killed himself after he learned of the lethal effects of the “Elixir.” All the FDA could do was fine Massengill $26,000 for false labeling because no law required toxicity testing of drugs before marketing. In response Congress passed the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to regulate drug safety.

In 1939 Domagk won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Fearing retaliation from the Nazi regime, Domagk responded that he was honored to be chosen but would have to wait for government approval to accept the award. Hitler had earlier decreed it illegal for Germans to accept a Nobel Prize after the committee offended Hitler by awarding the 1935 Peace Prize to a German anti-Nazi. Despite Domagk’s actions, the Gestapo imprisoned him for several days and forced him to sign a document refusing the prize.

In 1947, Domagk traveled to Stockholm to finally accept his award. In his prescient speech he warned of the risks of antibiotic resistance. He ended the lecture with his research philosophy, undoubtedly influenced by his early days in wartime hospitals: “I consider it my first duty in the development of chemotherapy to cure those diseases which have hitherto been incurable, so that in the first place those patients are helped who can be helped in no other way.”

Margaret E. Wood is the editorial assistant for Chemical Heritage.