Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Dinitrophenol and obesity: The NYT's curiously sparse coverage from 1933 to 1938

via Corante I came across Dinitrophenol and obesity: an early twentieth-century regulatory dilemma. - NCBI. It’s a modern article on a pre-FDA weight loss drug that worked very well.

Very, very well. Except for the death part.

Reminds me of 2015 herbal remedies, but at least most of those contain no active ingredients at all.

Since it’s from the 1930s, I thought I would be fun to look at what the NYT was writing about the drug at the time. I didn’t find as much as I expected, and at least two articles in the archive couldn’t be retrieved, but it’s interesting to look at what turned up…

TimesMachine: November 26, 1933  British Scientists Report Progress With a New Drug for Reducing Weight - NYTimes.com

Encouraging results … dinitro-ortho-cresol … five times more powerful than dinitrophenol which American physicians have been trying out clinically … speeding up rate of metabolism … Dinitrophenol is a very potent and dangerous substance … Dinitro-ortho-cresol is said to be safer …


TimesMachine: May 26, 1935 Drug Lowers Body Heath - NYTimes.com

Something rare in medicine, a drug that lowers temperature… dinitrosalicylic acid … attracted attention because of wide medical interest in dinitrophenol… has found wide use for reducing weight … It speeds  up metabolism … temperatures of animals dropped 7 degrees F


TimesMachine: October 13, 1935 Dangers in Diets (book review of Diet and Die) - NYTimes.com

.. better-known systems of reducing such as Salisbury system, fasting, vegetarianism, low protein diets, the banana and skimmed milk diet … Hollywood Eighteen Day diet, the Rocine, Hauser and Hay diets…

… thyroid and dinitrophenol preparations … fairly fast and sure methods of committing suicide …


TimesMachine: June 7, 1936 Deformities laid to reducing drug - NYTimes.com

… use of dinitrophenol, and the inhalation of naphthalene given off by ordinary moth balls, were described to the American Eugenics Association as causing congenital deformities…

… Women who used the reducing drug… may expect their children to be born with eye cataracts, atrophied livers or other defects…

The rest of the Eugenics Association meeting was about hereditary deformity and subnormality. A resolution to comment on the risks of dinitrophenol failed because the association dealt with heredity, not pharmacology.


TimesMachine: September 9, 1938 F. T. C. Attacks ‘Weight Reducer' in First Test of New Powers - NYTimes.com

The Federal Trade Commission, acting for the first time under a provision … gives … commission limited powers in stopping false advertising …order restraining Hartman chain … sales of … 281 … alleged to contain a drug which causes … blindness.

… contained a drug known as dinitrocresol …

… Senior surgeon .. stated physicians had “practically abandoned” the use of dinitrocresol or its milder congener, dinitrophenol, because of the risk that use of these drugs would tend to the formation of cataracts or even death …

Well. There’s just too much here. To unpack it all would take a rather long NYT Magazine. For example …

  • Why doesn’t the NYT have more articles on dinitrophenol? It was being used in the US in 1933, but by 1938 it was already out of use because of widespread cataracts. In the course of that entire time there are less than 8 articles? (2-3 of which couldn’t be retrieved.) Did the NYT not cover medicine or health care in the 1930s? Who was writing about this stuff?
  • WTF was dinitro-ortho-creso/ dinitrocresol? How could anyone think a drug that was 5x more powerful was “safer”? I assume that was mangled journalism, but what the heck did DOC do?
  • Acetylsalicylic acid is better known as aspirin. First discovered in 1763 and widely used by the the 1900s. So what was the deal with dinitrosalicylic in 1935? Dropped temperatures 7F?! That’s one wicked poison.
  • In 1935 vegetarianism was a considered a potentially lethal fad diet. The Rocine diet must be related to “Eating for Beauty” by Victor Rocine, 1929 including “How Iron Food Makes a Woman a Social Magnet”. (I couldn’t quite figure out what Racine was into, but he didn’t like fried foods).
  • The Eugenics Association was just like you’d think.
  • Why cataracts?! That’s intriguing. What was it about metabolic decoupling that led so remarkably to cataract formation? Do we understand this? Was there some kind of general accelerated aging of select tissues? Really, that’s quite fascinating.
  • There’s no mention of the FDA, which FDR established in 1938. The Colman article says it took the early FDA to stop dinitrophenol, but the NYT 1938 article says use had been abandoned before the FDA was established. Instead (like today, thank you Senator Orrin @#&#$ Hatch) it was the FTC that blocked sale of a herbal remedy on the basis of false advertising. Interesting the false part wasn’t efficacy (it worked!), it was claims that the active ingredient was still popular with physicians.

Really, one could write a book. Incidentally, methamphetamine was a very popular diet drug around this time. American had fairly  effective diet drugs from 1930-1950. Maybe that’s why we seemed thinner then…

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