An Essay on Patent Medicines Containing Sulfa
The first antibiotics ever discovered were sulfa drugs which contained chemicals known as sulfonamides and worked at the molecular level. They were first used during the 1930s triggering an astounding revolution in medicine (NIH, 2012). These drugs virtually treated a range of bacterial infections that had the possibility of being fatal such as streptococcal infections (notably scarlet fever, erysipelas, and puerperal sepsis), pneumonia, and meningitis. During the mid-1930s (especially 1936) Pneumonia was incredibly fatal accounting for approximately 8% of total deaths (Jayachandran, 2008). Following their discovery, there was a huge spike in the production and sales of the drugs with over 10 to 15 million people being treated with them in 1940 alone (Hecht, 1984). The drug gained a cult following among people and was called “the miracle of miracles” it saved millions of lives from Winston Churchill to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s son (Hager, 2006)
As most bacteria do over time, a resistance to sulfa drugs was developed replacing them with penicillin. However, sulfa drugs are still utilized to treat a variety of bacterial infections. They work by binding and inhibiting a specific enzyme called dihydropteroate synthase (DHPS) which is crucial for the synthesis of the essential nutrient folate (NIH, 2012). Despite its miracles, sulfa patented medicines also had their downfalls.
Dr. James Stephenson, a country doctor in Oklahoma, noticed an alarming rate of fatalities around his region in 1937. The suspected culprits for the fatalities ranged from kidney failure to poison.Upon reading an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that highlighted ...
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...n of a medicine if deemed to be deleterious to ones’ health Massengill ultimately denied all claims of certain error that the toxic agent was diethylene glyocol (Hager, 2006).
Hager, Thomas. (2006).The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press. 209-35. Print.
Hecht. Annabel. (1984). “Sulfa; Yesterday's Hero is Still Taking Bows.” FDA Consumer
Jayachandran, S. et. Al.(2008). Modern Medicine and the 20th Century Decline in Mortality: New Evidence on the Impact of Sulfa Drugs. California Center for Population Research. UCLA: California Center for Population Research. Retrieved from: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/7vh9m2q8
National Institutes for Health. (2012). How Sulfa Drugs Work. Retrieved from
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