Boomer Moms Treated Summer Scrapes and Cuts with Mercurochrome

Summer is here, and kids are out of school and ready to hit the video games for a day of indoor, air-conditioned play. This was hardly the case sixty years ago; of course, video games had yet to be invented, but for boomers, summer was synonymous with outdoor play.

Each summer day, shortly after the sun came up, and certainly by seven or seven-thirty in the morning, Mister Boomer and his siblings would get out of bed and fix themselves bowls of their favorite sugary cereal. Their mother, having awakened hours earlier to make their father’s breakfast before he headed to work by six-thirty, had returned to bed and remained sound asleep.

The kids, heading out the front door, left it as it had been all night — open to allow the cool evening air to circulate through the screen door. They proceeded to meet up with other boomer kids on the block, of varying ages. Usually the girls would split off on their own to revel in a world of Barbies and tea parties, but occasionally some would join the boys in explorations of streets, fields and forests, as they picked up stray bits of wood, twigs, rocks, dirt balls, insects and garter snakes along the way.

Sometimes the play would stay on the block, with bike riding that inevitably turned to dares of maneuvers with varying degrees of questionable safety: riding no-hands, standing on one pedal, jumping off as the bike crashed into a neighbor’s tree.

Since boys will be boys, there were bound to be bruises, cuts and scrapes. Whether they were self-inflicted from falls or jackass stupidity, or at the hand of a neighbor via a spur-of-the-moment projectile or weapon, there was blood. Rarely did the condition warrant a doctor’s attention. More often than not, a quick pit stop back home would suffice as the Emergency Room of Summer.

At the home front, moms would take the nearest cloth — a dish cloth, dish towel or bathroom washcloth — and wipe the wounded area. Then, reaching into the bathroom medicine cabinet, the family’s bottle of Mercurochrome would be taken out. Just the name alone said “this is real medicine.” It was funny stuff. A bright, red-orange liquid kept in a small, brown bottle, it was topped with a cap that contained a glass stick applicator. The kids cringed as the liquid was spread across the affected area, though it did not sting. It left a reddish patch surrounding the wound as it dried; a Red Badge of Courage in the Battles of Summer. Like a race car driver that finished getting a new set of tires, just like that the kids were out the door and ready to finish the day’s race in record time.

Little did boomers know that Mercurochrome, the trade name for merbromin, was not a miracle mystery cure, but a topical antiseptic. Unlike iodine, which is sometimes confused it with, Mercurochrome did not contain alcohol and therefore any initial cringes were calmed when the sting that iodine delivered did not follow its application. What it did contain was mercury, which ultimately led to its undoing.

Like many drugs present in the early boomer years, merbromin had been in use for decades. Discovered in 1919, it was developed for public consumption by the Baltimore firm of Hynson, Westcott & Dunning. As a topical antiseptic, it was used to treat small cuts and scrapes through the Depression years, World War II and into the prime boomer years of the 1950s and ’60s.

In 1978, the Federal Food and Drug Administration conducted a review of over-the-counter medication, including mercury-based compounds like merbromin. There had never been a study linking the mercury-based compounds to any injuries or deaths, but some subsequent studies have suggested possible links for mercury-based compounds to a number of illnesses, including autism in children. By 1998, the FDA had concluded that merbromin — Mercurochrome — was “not generally recognized as safe and effective.” As a result, the sale of all forms of merbromin was forbidden across state lines. Thus the reign of this topical antiseptic of boomer youth had unceremoniously ended.

What memory is conjured up for you when you hear the word, “Mercurochrome,” boomers?

This edited post was originally published by Mister Boomer on June 26, 2011.

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