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Doctor Senators Barrasso and Price – They Are No Royal Copeland.

Posted on | July 14, 2017 | No Comments

Sen. Royal Copeland M.D. (D, NY)

Mike Magee

This week the Republican leadership once again released an unapologetically regressive plan for America’s healthcare that would drive a further wedge between rich and poor and sow despair deep into America’s soul. Sadly, two of the primary leaders of the effort are fellow physicians, Sen. John Barrasso (R,WY) and former Sen. Tom Price (R, GA). This in the same week that we learn that America’s childhood go-to staple, Kraft boxed Mac & Cheese, has been laced with endocrine disrupting phthalates all along and no one seems to have noticed.

Barrasso and Price stand in steep contrast to other historic physician legislators. For example, in 1932, with FDR fully in charge and the New Deal gaining momentum, Walter Campbell, the director of the FDA, and the Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, Rexford Tugwell, put a proposal in front of FDR to strengthen the enforcement powers of the 1906 FDA law. Their ally in Congress was a physician and former New York City Commissioner of Health, now senator from New York, Royal S. Copeland M.D..

Copeland gave it his all, but it was an exercise in futility. To begin with, he was opposed by a wide range of interests from food to drug manufacturers to cosmetic makers. But more importantly, the newspaper and magazine publishers viewed “over-regulation” of this free wielding American sector as an existential threat to them. After all, the advertising dollars spent by every Tom, Dick and Harry with a “miracle cure” were considerable. And that was without counting the food manufacturers whose wallets were wide open as they worked to establish their various national brands. To these publishers, tighter health controls meant tighter marketing budgets. To make matters worse, the Copeland supported legislation would involve itself in regulating the murky area of “false advertising”, and “who knows where that could end”.

But the truth is that at the time the various commercial interests were not too worried about the FDA’s Walter Campbell, or his boss in Agriculture, Rexford Tugwell, or even the Senate’s Royal Copeland. Health legislation was low on the list of priorities in FDR’s New Deal. It was going nowhere fast – that is, until October 11, 1937. That was the day that the American Medical Association was informed by one of its physicians that a number of children in Tulsa, Oklahoma had taken a new sulfanilamide liquid medicine and died.

AMA labs quickly identified the killing agent as diethylene glycol used as a mixing agent in the elixir of sulfanilamide produced by S.E. Massengill and Co. in Bristol, Tennessee. The mix had passed the taste test of the company’s chief chemist, but he had somehow missed that diethylene glycol was a known poison used in anti-freeze. At the time, no safety tests were required before release of medicines on our citizenry.

“Elixir Sulfanilamide” was rushed into production and distributed widely. 240 gallons of the red liquid made it’s way to 31 states, through a web-like network with many small distributors. That was in early September, 1937. In all, over the next 6 weeks 100 children died. And their deaths were not simple. They were proceeded by 7 to 21 days of wrenching painful illness including “stoppage of urine, severe abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, stupor, and convulsions”.

One young mother spoke for everyone affected in her 1937 letter to FDR:

“The first time I ever had occasion to call in a doctor for [Joan] and she was given Elixir of Sulfanilamide. All that is left to us is the caring for her little grave. Even the memory of her is mixed with sorrow for we can see her little body tossing to and fro and hear that little voice screaming with pain and it seems as though it would drive me insane. … It is my plea that you will take steps to prevent such sales of drugs that will take little lives and leave such suffering behind and such a bleak outlook on the future as I have tonight.”

Doctors, in a manner reminiscent of contemporary physicians who carelessly over-prescribed Oxycontin and ignited the current Opioid Epidemic, were remorseful as well. Consider Dr. Archie Calhoun, of Mount Olive, Mississippi, who wrote on October 22, 1937:

“Nobody but Almighty God and I can know what I have been through these past few days. I have been familiar with death in the years since I received my M.D. from Tulane University School of Medicine with the rest of my class of 1911. Covington County has been my home. I have practiced here for years. Any doctor who has practiced more than a quarter of a century has seen his share of death. But to realize that six human beings, all of them my patients, one of them my best friend, are dead because they took medicine that I prescribed for them innocently, and to realize that that medicine which I had used for years in such cases suddenly had become a deadly poison in its newest and most modern form, as recommended by a great and reputable pharmaceutical firm in Tennessee: well, that realization has given me such days and nights of mental and spiritual agony as I did not believe a human being could undergo and survive. I have known hours when death for me would be a welcome relief from this agony.”

The whole disaster was vigorously reported in the press, including the powerful New York media, home state of FDR, Chief Justice Hughes and Royal Copeland. It was a New York physician, learning of the AMA’s involvement on October 14, 1937, who first had contacted Walter Campbell at the FDA and got the policy ball rolling. As a result of the tragedy, the issue was now a New Deal priority and on everyone’s radar screen. Copeland and Campbell teamed up on legislation.

The AMA, the American Pharmaceutical Association, women’s groups and the national press all closed ranks in support. It didn’t hurt that the main Congressional opponent of Royal Copeland’s legislation was Representative Carroll Reece from Tennessee, home state of the S.E. Massengill Company. Copeland harnessed the power of the media writing an impassioned editorial in Scientific American where he detailed the deficiencies of the 1906 law.

On November 16, 1937, Senator Copeland formally addressed the tragedy on the Senate floor and asked the Department of Agriculture, which had jurisdiction over the FDA, to issue a formal investigative report on the tragedy.  Over the next six months he worked tirelessly on corrective legislation. By June 11, 1938, bills from the Senate and House of Representatives had been reconciled, and on June 25, 1938, FDR signed into law the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

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