THE POISON EATERS: FIGHTING DANGER AND FRAUD IN OUR FOOD AND DRUGS
The Poison Eaters is the story of the beginnings and evolution of the Food and Drug Administration. It is also the biography of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), who is known as the Father of the FDA.
By the end of the 19th century, many Americans had moved from the farm to urban areas. They no longer grew or processed their own food. Instead, they ate from cans and jars, to which manufacturers added chemicals to reduce spoilage and to improve appearance. During the same period, people turned to elixirs, tonics, and pills. These quack medicines often contained poisonous ingredients as well as addictive alcohol, cocaine, and opium.
Wiley, a medical doctor and chief chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Chemistry, worried that the additives in food and medicine were harmful and ineffective. He joined Progressive Era reformers, muckrakers, and women’s groups in encouraging Congress to pass laws that protected Americans from this danger. But lobbyists from the large food companies prevented any government regulation.
In 1902, Wiley tried a different approach. He set up an experiment at the Bureau of Chemistry to test various food additives on a dozen healthy volunteers. For six months, the young men of the Poison Squad only ate and drank at meals prepared under Wiley’s direction. In one of the items served at each meal, Wiley hid a commonly used chemical additive. Gradually, he increased the amounts, carefully documenting the physical effects on the Squad members. Some substances gave the men stomachaches and headaches. Other chemicals made them so sick they took to their beds. The motto of the Squad was: “None but the brave can eat the fare.”
The tests continued for five years with several groups of volunteers. Although the experiments were scientifically flawed, the Poison Squad grabbed the nation’s attention, becoming the subject of newspaper articles, songs, and poems. Wiley had succeeded in raising concerns about food and drug safety. Thanks to increased public pressure, Congress passed the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, the first federal law to protect consumers from dangerous, poisonous, or mislabeled products. The law was informally called the Wiley Act, and the Bureau of Chemistry took charge of its enforcement. In 1938, Congress passed a stronger Pure Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to address the surge in dangerous chemicals added to food and drugs during the 1920s and 1930s. This law, along with its amendments, remains in effect today.
The book contains sidebar spreads about quack medicines and the path of a bill to law; a glossary; timeline; source notes; bibliography; author’s note; and additional resources.
THE POISON EATERS can be used as part of
language arts, HISTORY,
science, and health curricula.
As a biography, The Poison Eaters traces the life of Harvey Wiley from his boyhood on an Indiana farm, through his soldier days during the Civil War, through his training as a chemist, and to his influential role in national politics and government.
As a history, the book explores the Progressive Era and the muckrakers; the role of food and drugs in everyday American life and the way this changed during the past 100 years; and the process of passing and implementing laws.
As a STEM book, The Poison Eaters discusses the chemical analysis of foods and drugs. It shows how scientific research influenced legislation and policy. Wiley’s experiments are described and critiqued. Their designs and flaws illustrate the ways research methods have advanced.
Human health topics include diet, food additives, and drugs during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Students can examine similarities to current concerns about chemical additives in foods and cosmetics, opiate use, deceptive advertising, and quack medicines.
Drawings: Quack medicine labels, patent medicine advertising, political cartoons.
Photographs: Harvey Wiley, his family and associates, early 20th century food factories, the Bureau of Chemistry lab, the Poison Squad members and the experiment’s setting; contemporary images of FDA activities.
Newspaper headlines covering the Poison Squad.
MORE TO EXPLORE
The Food & Drug Administration website offers a wide range of information about the regulation of food, drugs, cosmetics, and more. For general information, see U.S. Food & Drug Administration: fda.gov
About the what the FDA does: fda.gov/about-fda/what-we-do
About food additives and ingredients:
For short videos about the FDA, visit its YouTube channel: . youtube.com/user/USFoodandDrugAdmin
Watch videos from the FDA’s History Vault about the surprising and shocking history of food and drugs in the U.S. .youtube.com/playlist?list=PLey4Qe-UxcxasCYYH4p-P8kIyMqah386U
To find out more about the Radium Girls and their plight, watch “The Radium Girls.” SciShow on YouTube. youtube.com/watch?v=galqlW6VcMY
Learn details about the thalidomide calamity at “The Shadow of the Thalidomide Tragedy.” The New York Times. YouTube. youtube.com/watch?v=41n3mDoVbvk
Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906 by James Harvey Young. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.
The Health of a Nation: Harvey W. Wiley and the Fight for Pure Food by Oscar E. Anderson, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
1001 Tests of Foods, Beverages and Toilet Accessories, Good and Otherwise: Why They Are So by Harvey W. Wiley. New York: Hearst’s International Library, 1916 Available at archive.org/details/1001testsoffoods00wile/page/n9
“The Great American Fraud: A Series of Articles on the Patent Medicine Evil” by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Reprinted from Collier’s Weekly, 1906. Available at archive.org/details/greatamericanfr02adamgoog
The Jungle by Sinclair Lewis. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1906. Available at archive.org/details/jungle00sinc
Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines by Sarah Albee. New York: Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017.