The baby’s hands and feet had become icy, swollen and red. The flesh was splitting off, resembling blanched tomatoes whose skins peeled back from the fruit. She had lost weight, cried petulantly, and clawed at herself from the intense itching, tearing the raw skin open. Sometimes her fever reached 39 degrees.
“If she was an adult,” her mother had noted, “she would have been considered to be insane, sitting up in her cot, banging her head with her hands.”
Later on, her condition would be called acrodynia, or painful tips, named so for the sufferer’s aching hands and feet. But in 1921, they called the baby’s affliction Pink’s Disease, and they were seeing more cases every year. For a while, physicians struggled to determine the etiology.
It was blamed on arsenic, ergot, allergies and viruses. But by the 1950s, the wealth of cases pointed to one common ingredient ingested by the sick kids — calomel. Parents, hoping to ease the teething pain of their infants, rubbed one of many available calomel-containing teething powders into their babies’ sore gums.
Very popular at the time: Dr. Moffett’s Teethina Powder, which also boasted that it “Strengthens the Child . . . Relieves the Bowel Troubles of Children of ANY AGE,” and could, temptingly, “Make baby fat as a pig.”
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