From 'Quack Medicine' To 'Soothing Syrup': Vermont's Long History With Opiate Abuse

Oct 19, 2015

In his 2014 State of the State address, Gov. Peter Shumlin called attention to the heroin and opiate addiction crisis across Vermont. But this is not the first time that Vermont has faced an opiate epidemic.

In 1900, a doctor named A.P. Grinnell estimated that Vermont druggists, doctors and general stores were dispensing a staggering 3.3 million doses of opium every month. That's 1.5 doses per day for every adult man and woman living in the state at the time.

Author and historian Gary Shattuck writes about Grinnell's findings and the popularity of opium in the most recent issue of Vermont History, the journal of the Vermont Historical Society.

On A. P. Grinnell's study

A.P. Grinnell took on the project of surveying the state's manufacturers, wholesalers, physicians, pharmacists and druggists at the request of the Vermont Medical Society in 1899. A dean at the Vermont Medical School, Grinnell was a highly respected doctor in the Burlington community.

He found that 3.3 million doses of drugs (morphine, opium, cocaine and others) were being sold by druggists in Vermont alone. This factored out to 1.5 doses per day per adult in Vermont.

Grinnell believed he could multiply these "conservative" average doses number by a factor of five, to more accurately reflect what was being consumed. He suggested that the opposition he received from druggist and other industry members impacted his data collection.

"There was an awful lot of over-prescribing being done by the medical community. There was free access to drugs; they were not restricted in any way." - Gary Shattuck, historian

"There was an awful lot of over-prescribing being done by the medical community," says Shattuck. "There was free access to drugs; they were not restricted in any way, either through the doctors or from the local pharmacies or drug stores."

On the drugs of the time, and their uses

The drugs were bought in the form of opium, injectable morphine by hypodermic needle, or patent medicines. These patent medicines were known as "nostrums" or "quack medicine" throughout the community, and contained quantities of opium.

"It was highly misleading, and was what lead in 1906 to the federal government passing the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required these concoctions to disclose their contents," says Shattuck.

Starting in 1866, reports from the Vermont Medical Society and Vermont Pharmaceutical Association noted the excess amounts of opium and morphine consumed by the public for both medicinal and recreational uses.

"Nationally, there was a big drug epidemic going on [at the turn of the century]. But according to the numbers, Vermont was off the charts compared to the rest."

"Nationally there was a big drug epidemic going on, but according to the numbers, Vermont was off the charts compared to the rest," says Shattuck.

Opium was used silently within families, concealed until the addiction became too large to remain private. Addiction was addressed in the 1890s, when the Keeley Institution opened in Montpelier to aid in breaking alcohol, tobacco and opium addictions.

Children were given various quantities of opium mixed with sugar in order to ease behavioral issues or aid sleep. Drugs like "Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup" were being openly sold so parents could subdue children, especially during the teething process.

A doctor in Middlebury studied methods of coaxing children to take medication. He suggested that alcohol, which at the time was believed to have medicinal qualities, should be mixed with opium and sugar and distributed to children.

"The children go on to build this addiction," says Shattuck. "They ended up giving them so much drugs sometimes they had to counteract those drugs with other drugs. This was a largely self-medicating population."

On efforts to combat addiction

While the opium epidemic raged on, combating alcohol addiction took center stage.

Vermont instituted a prohibition against the manufacture and sale of alcohol in 1852. This became the centerpiece of legislation throughout the last half of the nineteenth century. In 1894, Vermont law included 23 pages of content related to prohibition. Drug laws at the time did not fill an entire page.

"The state was focused on prohibition to the point where legislators were not listening to the medical community who was alerting them to this existing problem."

"The state was focused on prohibition to the point where legislators were not listening to the medical community who was alerting them to this existing problem," says Shattuck.

Grinnell's study and subsequent report brought about statewide and nationwide change. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act passed after being first introduced in 1910 by Vermont Congressman Henry Foster. This law made strides to combat the use of narcotics across the country.

Gary Shattuck will be giving the inaugural Sam B. Hand Memorial Lecture, "Opiate Use in Vermont – The Present Reflects the Past," on Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. at the University of Vermont.