In The Pink?

Published in Family, Personal History

Life in rural west Tyrone in the years immediately following the Second World War was simple when compared to the present. Homes were small, usually just two or three rooms, whitewashed and thatched. Hearth fires provided heat and cooking facilities and candles or oil lamps were used for light. The countryside at night was dark and mysterious, a land where ghosts, spirits and fairies posed a constant threat to the health and wealth of mortals. It was into this world that I was born, the first child for my parents, to be followed fourteen months later by my brother who arrived just four weeks before the twentieth century reached its mid point.

One of the more elderly neighbours who came to welcome my little brother placed the fire tongs across his pram and gently chided my parents for not being more careful in protecting the baby from the fairies. According to her fairies had already stolen their firstborn and left in her place – well, me! Strangely enough there was logic to her reasoning! The healthy happy playful child I had been at a year old had been replaced by an alien like creature which now permanently nested in a cushioned corner of the sofa, rocking back and forth, sweating profusely and crying continually.

I had been a normal healthy toddler and before my brother’s arrival I was walking, communicating and interacting with those around me. Around the time that Michael arrived my parents noticed that I was a bit ‘out of sorts’ and ‘off my food’. Any suggestions that my symptoms were simply an adverse reaction to my new sibling were dispelled as I became increasingly unwell. I quickly lost the ability to walk, refused to eat, my hands, feet, nose and chin turned pink and my body was covered in a painful weeping rash. Everything distressed me, light, noise, people, being picked up or not being picked up. Mystified my GP had me admitted to hospital in Omagh where the medical staff was just as puzzled. However, I was eventually diagnosed with Pink Disease, a condition for which there was no cure, no treatment and, at that time, no known cause.

Pink Disease appeared to strike randomly at babies and infants of teething age. There were many theories about the cause of the illness, including bad parenting, poor nutrition or maternal stress. However, because it rarely struck outside of the teething months suspicion fell on powders which were designed to alleviate the discomfort caused by teething. Steedman’s Powders, which had a high mercury content, were often given to teething babies. They were heavily promoted and widely used. Any suggestion that the mercury in these powders was the cause of Pink Disease was strongly resisted partly because so few children, around one in five hundred, became ill. There were also cases of children, and I was one, who had not been given the powders becoming ill.

In 1953 a coroner in England decreed at the inquests into the deaths of two baby girls that poisoning caused by the mercury in teething powders had been responsible. The powders were immediately withdrawn from sale in the British Isles and the number of cases of Pink Disease decreased instantly. Now it is unheard of at least in the developed world.

The illness typically lasted from about six to nine months and about 25% of babies died. Such a prolonged period of serious illness during an important developmental stage in an infant’s life was bound to have a detrimental effect and many of those who survived have had medical and mental problems all their lives.

I have never met anyone else who had Pink Disease, or indeed anyone who had ever even heard of it. Recently, however, an online support group managed by Australian survivors of the disease put me in email contact with two Irish ‘Pinkies’. Like me neither of these two ladies were given the offending powders but mercury was also an ingredient in many other products at that time; for example, worm medicines, lotions and nappy detergents and it was also used as a stabiliser in vaccines. We must have acquired the poisoning from some of these products.

As is evident I survived Pink Disease, due entirely to my parents’ dedicated nursing. My illness lasted for almost nine months and by the time I turned two in October 1950 I was back on my feet again. I hesitate to say that I have suffered no after effects, but I have remained reasonably healthy since babyhood. My two ‘Pinkie’ friends have not been so lucky and both of them have had many health problems.

While this is my own personal history there are probably several hundred people still alive in Ireland who could tell a similar story. I often think of the old lady who described me as a changeling. In a way she was right. I and my fellow Pink Disease sufferers WERE changelings, our good health and well-being stolen not by fairy folk, but by something altogether more mercurial; I think our stories should be heard.


Ellen (Connolly) McKenna, born and brought up near Drumquin Co Tyrone, now living in north Monaghan. 


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