JAN 24, 2018 6:00 AM PST

Elixir Sulfanilamide - A Drug that Kills

WRITTEN BY: Daniel Duan

The word "elixir" comes from Greek origin of "powder for drying wounds". Its modern definition means a clear, sweet-flavored liquid medication. However, the case of Elixir Sulfanilamide, a poisonous formulation that was responsible for over one hundred death, went down in history as a textbook example of pharmaceutical malpractice and lack of drug regulation. 

In 1937, a pharmaceutical business called S. E. Massengill Company marketed an antibiotic liquid preparation under the name "Elixir Sulfanilamide". Sulfanilamide is a drug used to treat streptococcal infections, and had been used safely in tablet and powder form at the time. Massengill's chief chemist and a pharmacist, Harold Watkins, experimented and found that sulfanilamide would dissolve in diethylene glycol (DEG).

DEG, nowadays used as an antifreeze agent, is poisonous to humans and other mammals. On the basis of both lack of toxicity data and no requirement for safety testing, the Massengill Company simply adjusted the flavoring of the sulfanilamide liquid preparation, and then marketed the product. 

Elixir Sulfanilamide went on sale in September 1937. In less than a month, the American Medical Association already became aware the death of several patients who had taken the medication. Before FDA put the complete stoppage on the drug, at least 100 more Elixir Sulfanilamide-caused deaths had been reported.

Watkins committed suicide before trial. In response to public outcry, U.S. Congress passed the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which required pharmaceutical companies to perform animal safety tests on their proposed new drugs and submit the data to the FDA, before any products enter the market.

Source: SciShow via Youtube

About the Author
  • Graduated with a bachelor degree in Pharmaceutical Science and a master degree in neuropharmacology, Daniel is a radiopharmaceutical and radiobiology expert based in Ottawa, Canada. With years of experience in biomedical R&D, Daniel is very into writing. He is constantly fascinated by what's happening in the world of science. He hopes to capture the public's interest and promote scientific literacy with his trending news articles. The recurring topics in his Chemistry & Physics trending news section include alternative energy, material science, theoretical physics, medical imaging, and green chemistry.
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