The death of Mary Greene

Mary Greene was the first daughter of Michael and Bridget (Sheehan) Greene. Born in Worcester on 8 May, 1896, she died just a little over a year later, on 7 August, 1897. According to the Worcester death registry, the cause of death was “Cholera Infantum”. You might think that Cholera Infantum is just plain cholera when it infects a child, but in fact it was a specific disease, also called “Summer Complaint”, that could reach epidemic proportions among babies and very young children, especially in the overcrowded tenements of the late 19th century.

about-us-bottleIf you Google “Cholera Infantum”, you will eventually come across references to Pepto-Bismol. That’s because Pepto-Bismol was originally a concoction called “Bismosal Mixture Cholera Infantum”, which was specifically aimed at treating this disease.

This is from the Pepto-Bismol History Page:

Today, we think of how Pepto-Bismol soothes the digestive system after we’ve overindulged at a meal or eaten unfamiliar foods while traveling. But in its early days, Pepto-Bismol did more than comfort; it actually helped treat a very serious illness.

The medicine we now call Pepto-Bismol was originally developed at the start of the 20th century, when high standards of hygiene and sanitation weren’t as widespread as today. Looking to cure a frightening disease called “cholera infantum,” which struck infants suddenly, causing severe diarrhea, vomiting, and sometimes death, a doctor concocted a formula in his home that proved effective against these symptoms. The formula was made from pepsin, bismuth salicylate, zinc salts, salol, and oil of wintergreen, along with a colorant to make it pink, and he called it Mixture Cholera Infantum. (Researchers would later learn that cholera infantum was caused by a bacterial infection, treatable with antibiotics.)

Little Mary succumbed to the disease before Pepto-Bismol, and long before antibiotics. And she wasn’t the only one- of the twenty or so names on the same page of the death register, four were infants who died from Cholera Infantum.