When Infants Took Opium

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Opium use in England was completely unrestricted before 1868, when the first Pharmacy Act became law. It was the dosing of children with opiates that first drew the attention of public-health interests. The highest proportion of opium-poisoning deaths occurred among young children, especially babies less than a year old. Soothing syrups were popular purchases from chemists and corner shops. Godfrey’s Cordial, Dalby’s Carminative, Daffy’s Elixir, Atkinson’s Infants’ Preservative, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, and Street’s Infant Quietness were among the many preparations that crowded the market.

A series of public-health investigations into factory life, from the 1830s onward, drew attention to the connection between women’s work and “infant doping.” The campaign had a well-founded target but it was also myopic, for it ignored the extent of use outside these circles of workers. Opium was well used in the nurseries of the well-to-do, as advice books demonstrate. Pharmacy records show that opium solutions were widely dispensed for middle-class infants.

— Adapted from Demons: Our Changing Attitudes to Alcohol, Tobacco, & Drugs, by Virginia Berridge (published by Oxford University Press in February)

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