Why we owe food regulation to a 19th-Century chemist who poisoned his colleagues6 min read
Try to imagine twelve fine young men sat around a fine dinner table with a fine white tablecloth and fine silver settings, with their bow ties rested at their chins as they delicately brought forkfuls of more or less delicious foods to their mouths. Well, although each morsel laced with formaldehyde and benzoate, while borax tablets that polished off the meal.
These heroes were the so-called “Poison Squad”: for five years, beginning in 1902, their nightly meals came from a government-run kitchen, where they ingested common (and previously untested) food preservatives. Probably you don’t know that this danger-facing squad was not only responsible for proving a need for ingredient lists on food labels, but they propelled the creation of our modern Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The act of healthy men boldly eating poisoned food on purpose lent the Poison Squad near-hero status. Their motto was “Only the Brave Dare Eat The Fare,” and the squad even had its own catchy rhyme, a work by poet S.W. Gillian:
“On prussic acid we break our fast
We lunch on morphine stew
We dine with a matchhead consummé
Drink carbolic acid brew”
In any case, today the idea of having a group of people willingly poison themselves seems crazy enough. However a man named Harvey Wiley, chief chemist of the Bureau of Chemistry, felt he had good reason to go to this extreme when he started his experiment. Since the 1800s, people had eaten dangerous, unregulated foods: just for istance, a regular bitter beer was laced with strychnine, but it was also common to unknowingly eat chalk-filled bread, while some honey companies used to deal glucose as pure honey.
At the time, food safety was under the control of state and local governments, but as the United States transitioned from an agricultural society to an urban one, local food laws started to miss credibility. Lot of food products were being made in factories using new, untested chemicals as preservatives, without stating so on the label, and Wiley wondered if all those new preservatives, which included acids and formaldehyde, were actually safe for humans after all.
Members of the Poison Squad catched the chance to be part of this new research experiment, and Dr. Wiley remarked at the time that his laboratory “became the most highly advertised boarding-house in the world.” Squad members were either employees of the Bureau of Chemistry or Georgetown Medical College students lured by the promise of extra money and free room and board.
Interestingly, Wiley did not try to obscure the fact that participants would be risking their health (and their lives) in service to his experiment. He even wrote a poem boasting about it:
“Oh, maybe this bread contains alum and chalk,
Or sawdust chopped up very fine,
Or gypsum in powder about which they talk,
Terra alba just out of the mine.
And our faith in the butter is apt to be weak,
For we haven’t a good place to pin it
Annato’s so yellow and beef fat so sleek,
Oh, I wish I could know what is in it?”
Using a $5,000 government grant, Wiley bought food, hired a cook, and brought on the first 12 members of the squad. Each participant, strictly male, was carefully selected: their weight, temperature, and pulse were recorded before the meal, stool and urine samples were tested, and cases of sickness and nausea were recorded.
While the Poison Squad ate meats and consumed drinks laced with increasing amounts of suspected poisons at their fine dining table, the public really fell in love with their cause. Enchanted journalists reported on their trials of these “young men of perfect physique and health”, while consumers across the country suddenly grew concerned about the safety of what they’d been eating.
In a statement, Wiley told the press that his experiments were “never carried to the extreme”. However, as the Poison Squad continued their work, the poisons they ate began to wear on them. By 1903 they’d been eating increasing amounts of borax, one of the most common preservatives at the time, with their meals for almost a year.
As a result, the Poison Squad went on strike that May, and Wiley compromised a bit: seven men agreed to eat the borax until late June, and the scientist consented to end the experiment early.
After the tumultuous borax experiment drew to a close, Wiley determined that, yes, borax caused severe stomach aches, loss of appetite and headaches, rendering his subjects “unfit for work of any kind.” Despite this, Wiley had no trouble getting new men to sign up for his next food additive experiment: salicylic acid.
During those trials, however, Wiley was forced to abandon his tests to let the exhausted group recover.
By the end of the Poison Squad’s existence, in 1907, those who didn’t withdraw from the experiments completely were observed to be “on a slow approach toward death” after eating long-term doses of the various additives.
Formaldehyde, which was often used in dairy products, strained the kidneys and made the test subjects sick, while benzoate caused unhealthy weight loss and blood vessel damage.
One squad member died of tuberculosis (allegedly after being weakened from poison), and his family threatened to sue.
Eventually, after five years of testing dangerous ingredients, Wiley decided he had gathered enough evidence that these common food additives were hurting people.
Meanwhile, The General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the National Association of Colored Women had long advocated for issues that affected women and their homes, including preserved food. Women’s groups manifested with food safety pamphlets and classes in multiple languages, intended to warn women of the dangers that lurked in common products.
As Wiley gained prominence for his Poison Squad’s success, he joined forces with the women’s food safety cause, which was proving highly influential.
The Pure Food and Drug act was passed in 1906, setting a precedent to the later Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act and the modern Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The law prevented “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs or medicines, and liquors.”
Any food or drug product sold in the United States now had to include all its ingredients, including a percentage of narcotics if relevant, on the label for the consumer.
Sad but true, Wiley’s work even inspired a fad for local and industry-specific “poison squads.” A year after his experiments ended, a new week-long Poison Squad to test preservatives formed in New York City. Dried fruit packers made their own Poison Squad to re-test sulfites in their products, while a Coffee Poison Squad later recorded the effects of caffeine.
Between 1912 and 1930, Wiley headed the laboratories at the Good Housekeeping Institute, which tested household and food products, which is still done to this day.
So, every time we look at the kilometric list of ingredients in a packaged croissant, and note that chalk or formaldehyde is not one of them, we owe our thanks to the brave young men who swallowed poisonous additives on behalf of American consumers!