A Better Pill

A pre-1935 formulary card showing the recipe for Tastytab Children's Laxative. The ingredients include two ounces of alcohol. CHF Collections.

A pre-1935 formulary card showing the recipe for Tastytab Children's Laxative. The ingredients include two ounces of alcohol. (CHF Collections)

Archives place history at our fingertips, but sometimes that history needs a little interpretation. Take the records of early pharmaceutical company William H. Rorer, which point to a lesson in pharmacy and good government.

The collection includes a series of formulary cards made between 1911 and the late 1950s. These cards contained the “recipes” for various pharmaceutical products. When I first started processing the company’s records, I was struck by the fact that some of the cards were labeled “Pre-1939.” At first I assumed this date was simply an internal convention agreed on by the firm, but then I began to see more and more the designation “Prior to 1935.”

In 1935 certain members of Congress began to push for an update to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. The original act dealt mostly with issues of adulteration and labeling of foods and drugs. The upgrade proposed regulating the ingredients found in cosmetics and patent medicines, tightening language regarding food adulteration, and taking further steps to penalize false or misleading advertising. But the bill sputtered and stalled after anti–New Deal legislators and the patent-medicine industry went on the attack.

Despite this legislative failure a quick perusal of the formulary cards shows that the mere threat of the 1935 law resulted in changes to the ingredients found in common medicines. Gone were the opiates, codeine, and alcohol once found in everything up to and including medicines for children. (For example, a 1923 Tastytab Children’s Laxative card calls for the addition of two ounces of alcohol per batch of 70,000 five-grain tablets.)

These changes were not enough to prevent tragedy. In 1937 Elixir Sulfanilamide, a medicine for sore throats, came to market. S. E. Massengill Company formulated the elixir, which included the first antibiotic—sulfa—as well as diethylene glycol to dissolve the sulfa. At the time no law required toxicity testing. Previously, diethylene glycol (often a component in antifreeze) had been used successfully in lotions and salves, and so its makers assumed it was safe for internal use. Instead the drug killed over a hundred people by destroying their kidneys, a tragedy that led directly to the passing of the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which required drug manufacturers to test their products for safety.

Andrew Mangravite is archivist for CHF’s Othmer Library of Chemical History.