Doctor Wiley And His Poison Squad

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As Congress reassembled last autumn, the press reported an upsurge in campaign contributions by tobacco companies to fight new efforts to combat smoking—especially by declaring nicotine an addictive substance that can be regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The industry regards the FDA as fondly as a whale would look on Captain Ahab. So, it seems, do a number of food-processing and pharmaceutical companies. Conservative complaints about the “regulatory burden” supposedly handcuffing American manufacturers often target the FDA for being too slow or too persnickety in deciding what products are allowable on the market without undue risk. But the agency catches it from both sides; consumer organizations occasionally worry that it’s too complaisant in bending the rules when Congress leans on it to spare corporations fiscal pain. A federal regulator’s lot is not an ’appy one.

Well, it never was. And the PDA’s specific history has been stormy from the opening paragraph. For those who think that regulation is a net dropped on the American economy by left-wing plotters during the New Deal, it may be enlightening to learn that while the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act currently in force does indeed date from 1938, the antecedent of the present-day FDA was set up in 1927 under Calvin Coolidge. What is more, the original Pure Food and Drug Act, the primal fount of consumer protection by Washington, dates from 1906. It placed enforcement powers in the Bureau of Chemistry of the Department of Agriculture, to the vast satisfaction of that bureau’s chief, who had waged a long, passionate campaign against what he saw as the outrageous and sometimes lethal frauds of the meat-packing, canning, and other food-processing corporations of the day as well as their partners in crime who peddled patent medicines.

The crusader’s name was Harvey Wiley. Like many members of the Progressive flock, he came from a Midwestern evangelical background, and he translated the quest for salvation into worldly battles against political and economic unrighteousness. Born in Indiana in 1844 to a farmer who was also a Campbellite preacher, the young Wiley as a freshman at Hanover College in Indiana found the “consolations of religion sweeter than all.” But when his studies led him to graduate work in chemistry at Harvard and Berlin, he put science at least on a par with faith as a great avenue to moral and spiritual improvement, and he forsook sectarianism. All religions could join “to lead forward the human race into the freer light of truth and the fresher air of brotherly love.” Brotherly love was slightly compromised in his case by a feeling enunciated later in life that “I had the good fortune to be ranged on the side of right in every important contest I can remember.”

He got a professorship of chemistry at Purdue, and while there he helped write a report for the Indiana State Board of Health condemning adulterated food as an underrated danger. Those who thought of him as something of a crank were not entirely wrong; he was obsessed with nutrition and framed its problems in moral rather than medical terms. At his life’s end he insisted “that it is sin to be sick .”

In 1883, after a quarrel with Purdue’s president, Wiley moved to Washington to become chief chemist for the Department of Agriculture and to follow his cause with the total dedication of a bachelor who believed that only by “an intensively active life can I find relief from … awful ennui of Soul.” A period of cutbacks during the second Cleveland administration (1893–97) sharpened his bureaucratic turf-defense skills and confirmed his boyhood Republicanism. So he was a seasoned advocate and adversary by the time he took the fight for federal food and drug regulation to Congress. Unresting and uncompromising—but with considerable wit and charm—he published articles, gave speeches, and testified before committees considering legislation on the subject.

It was needed. Adulteration of food —sanded sugar, watered milk, sawdust-enhanced flour—was a scam of biblical antiquity, and states already had laws against it. But the growth of a nationwide food industry put most products into interstate commerce and therefore beyond the reach of state regulation. In addition, late-nineteenth-century technology produced additives—coloring agents and preservatives (like benzoate of soda and copper sulfate and various bleaches for flour)—that were potentially dangerous to the unwarned. Wiley and other reformers cried out for honest labeling and for legal and enforceable standards of what was and was not “adulterated,” which would be set by the department’s experts, administered nonpolitically, and enforced in the courts.

Bills to that effect were introduced as early as 1897 but failed in several successive Congresses. Experienced reformers expected as much and continued their efforts. So did Wiley. He ran an experiment within the department on the dangers of preservatives, enlisting a “Poison Squad” of a dozen heroic young male employees who submitted to rigidly controlled diets, frequent examinations, and the collection of their urine and feces for analysis. He worked the banquet circuit, producing charming little poems to woo listeners, like one whose title was “I Wonder What’s in It?”