Gross and Reisman were eventually apprehended and given two year suspended sentences, and their company was fined $1,000. The economic loss caused by their terrible experiment was estimated at £10,000,000 at the time – the equivalent of around £334,200,000 today.
But worse than the economic cost was the cost to the victims. More than 20,000 people were afflicted. Without any known cure, people resorted to a variety of desperate measures, from drinking crude oil to galvanic electricity treatments. Many were left both uncompensated and with permanent paralysis, and the worst affected were the poorest communities. They often didn't even receive sympathy for their suffering, because some felt they'd brought it on themselves through illicit drinking.
Not everyone was unmoved by their case though. In the 1933 book 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics, the ginger paralysis incident was used as an example to argue that people needed protection from products with dangerous side effects or defects. The book was a bestseller, and is credited with producing the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. This Act is still in force (in modified form) today and governs food additives, colourings, medical devices, homeopathic medications and even bottled water.
This winter, as you sip a warming ginger tea or munch on a ginger nut to ease your stomach, spare a thought for Mrs Donoghue and the thousands left suffering with “Jake leg”, whose shocking experiences paved the way to a safer society and greater protections governing what we eat and drink.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine, at Wellcome Collection until 8 April 2018.