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Boy dies from soft drink bottle

John Bowman Swan was only five years old when a drink from a sarsaparilla bottle ended his life.

Neither the little boy, nor his parents Charles and Nina, would have known what thallium was when he enjoyed the soft drink while spending Christmas in Caloundra in 1953, but it was to have a large effect on them all.

Front page of Truth newspaper in 1954.

Shortly after taking the drink, John was unable to keep his food down and complained of feeling giddy. Ten days later his hair started falling out and he was soon quite bald. For the following nine months he was in and out of hospital with his sickness, until he died in September 1954.

Charles requested a post-mortem on his son's tiny body to find out the cause of his death, as he and his wife both believed he had been poisoned by thallium. Police attended the autopsy but did not consider there were any suspicious circumstances to the boy's death.

Thallium is a chemical element that is not found free in nature. When isolated it resembles tin, but discolours when exposed to air. It's main use was as a rat poison and was freely available over the counter, when John Swan was alive. Many countries have banned its use.

John's mother had become convinced her son was poisoned by thallium, after speaking to a Brisbane specialist. John had been diagnosed as having chest trouble at one point, however, the specialist said the possibility of thallium poisoning was there.

No results from the autopsy were published in local newspapers, however in the following months, enquiries were made into the use of thallium, as more deaths were reported and the ease in which the poison could be bought, was investigated.

Memorial to John Bowman Swan. Courtesy Findagrave.

John was cremated and his ashes now lie in Mount Thomson Memorial Gardens and Crematorium in Brisbane, Queensland.


  • 'Child's death from thallium?', The Inverell Times, Friday 24 September 1954, Page 1

  • 'Fear Thallium Death', Daily Mercury, Friday 24 September, 1954, Page 1

  • 'Thallium', wikipedia, accessed 8th January, 2024,

  • 'Thallium fears in mystery death of tiny boy', Truth, Sunday 26th September 1954, Pages 1,2 and 43.

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