Health follies of last century


A look back at some of the ‘health misadventures’ common in the earlier years of the 20th century, by Ralph Tapping 

Health follies’ of the last century might otherwise be described as ‘health misadventures of the 1900s’, of which there were many.

Let’s begin with the infant feeding bottle that used a rubber tube to deliver the milk to the baby and became known as the “Murder Bottle” because of the bacteria that lurked in the rubber tube. It took several decades for the bottle to be banned.

Of great significance was the push to smoke tobacco, particularly among the armed services, as a means of “settling the nerves”. So many military people returned home from the wars addicted to nicotine, which often resulted in a premature demise.

The widespread use of asbestos on ships, in asbestos cement sheeting and in ceiling insulation was a major danger that took several decades after exposure to eventuate in asbestosis or mesothelioma, both equally devastating.

Feeding dogs with infected sheep offal allowed hydatids to take hold on the human population. My own mother, who grew up on a farm, had major surgery in her middle age to remove a football-sized sac of hydatid cysts from her abdomen!

Poliomyelitis was a much feared disease up until 1956, when the first vaccine was developed. Mostly occurring in children younger than 5 years of age, affects varying from mild to severe paralysis could be temporary or permanent and even result in death. Parents were naturally very apprehensive and even hung a camphor necklace around their children in an attempt to prevent infection! Polio has now been largely wiped out, except in pockets around the world where military conflict continues.

Tensival tablets, containing thalidomide

A major disaster was the prescribing of thalidomide as a mild sedative in early pregnancy. As a result, many children were born with limbs missing. Around the same period the prescribing of Debendox to treat morning sickness also gained a reputation (somewhat unfairly) for causing congenital deformities in newborns.

While the statistical difference between the effects of placebo and Debendox was eventually determined to be minimal, these two drugs brought about much more rigorous clinical trials before new medicines are approved—a major advance at the time and so important today.

Presto ‘magic pain relief’ Powders

APC (containing aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine) was a very popular analgesic until the 1960s, when it was discovered that phenacetin caused kidney damage. For this reason formulations such as Bex and Vincents were changed to being just aspirin and others changed to using paracetamol. 

Ralph Tapping is a pharmacist, and is curator of the PDL historical collection

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