12-year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Illinois, woke up at dawn and went into her parents’ bedroom. She complained of having a sore throat and a runny nose. Her parents gave her one extra-strength Tylenol capsule.
At 7am, they found Mary on the bathroom floor. She was immediately taken to the hospital where she was later pronounced dead. Doctors initially suspected that Mary died from a stroke.
A 27-year-old postal worker was later found lying on the floor. His breathing was laboured, his blood pressure was dangerously low and his pupils were fixed and dilated. The paramedics rushed him to hospital. He was dead.
Firefighters discussing four bizarre deaths noticed that all had taken Tylenol. A hospital doctor wondered about cyanide poisoning. The police retrieved suspect bottles and a day later it was confirmed that capsules contained 65mgrms cyanide, 10,000 times the lethal dose.
There were seven deaths mainly around Chicago. 31 million bottles of Tylenol were recalled, but the factory was blameless, bottles on store shelves seemed to have been tampered with.
Johnson & Johnson introduced tamper proof packaging and money off coupons. Public confidence soon returned, but the poisoner was never found. Over the next months there were many copy-cat incidents, some fatal.
Tylenol entered the textbooks and became a classic example of industrial - and healthcare - crisis management. Johnson & Johnson’s top management put customer safety first, before they worried about their company’s profit and other financial concerns.
- For a fuller account of the events, see www.nhshistory.net