What we consider to be medicine now has changed quite a bit from the things that your ancestors used when they were sick. Today, we have a very regulated system that tests the efficacy of prescription medications before they reach the marketplace. Back in the day, however, things were different. As a result, your ancestors may have been taking medicine that included ingredients that later proved to be a bad idea.
Some of the old-time medicines contained opium. There was one called Ascatco which was sold during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (a time that some refer to as “the turn of the century”). Ascatco was said to cure asthma and other respiratory ailments, including hay fever, and bronchitis.
People would put seven drops of Ascatco into water and then drink the mixture. This was done twice a day. This meant that people were consuming a total of 14 drops of opium every day. Instructions for this medicine suggested that a person should take it “long enough” and that when they stopped their asthma (or other respiratory ailment) would be gone forever.
Obviously, people found that they weren’t able to stop taking it. Opium is habit forming. Other ingredients included alcohol and arsenious acid. Technically speaking, the United States Department of Agriculture didn’t consider Ascatco to be a medicine at all, because it came from an Austrian Dispensary that wasn’t a drug store.
Victorian-era mothers gave their babies and toddlers doses of medicine from Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. It was intended to be used to calm crying babies and to soothe teething toddlers. With just a few drops, the upset baby would become calm and peaceful.
It turned out that Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup contained morphine. It also contained alcohol. Both ingredients can be addictive. It is possible that some infants, who had become addicted to it, would be fussy until they received another dose.
This medication started being sold in 1845 by Jeremiah Curtis and Benjamin A. Perkins. Both men were druggists. The formula for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup came from Jeremiah Curtis’s mother-in-law. She created it when she was working as a nurse who was caring for infants.
In the 1800’s, there was no requirement that medicines have their ingredients listed on their labels. Mothers did not know they were giving their babies a mixture of morphine and alcohol. It was not uncommon for infants to die from an accidental overdose. The American Medical Association denounced Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup in 1911, but it continued to be sold through 1930.
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