Doctor Wiley And His Poison Squad

PrintPrintEmailEmail The pepper perhaps contains cocoanut shells And the mustard is cottonseed meal; The coffee, in sooth, of baked chicory smells And the terrapin tastes like roast veal.

Patent medicines—especially so-called proprietary over-the-counter remedies, whose ingredients were a trade secret—were of less interest to Wiley, but the war on them brought valuable allies and publicity to the pure-food cause. The Ladies’ Home Journal ran editorials denouncing many popular nostrums like Peruna, Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, and Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound as fakes, often full of alcohol and narcotics, brazenly claiming to cure everything from asthma to ulcers.

A major breakthrough came in 1906 with the publication of Upton Sinclair’s novel of conditions in the packinghouses of Chicago, The Jungle . When Sinclair’s book, based on his own researches, showed that filth, floor sweepings, rats, and parts of an occasional unlucky workman sometimes went into the grinders and pickling vats to emerge as canned meat, the public was disgusted. Theodore Roosevelt seated himself more firmly on the pure-food bandwagon. “Mr. Dooley” summed up his reaction: “Tiddy was toying with a light breakfast an’ idly turnin’ over th’ pages iv th’ new book. … Suddenly he rose fr’m th’ table, an’ cryin’: ’I’m pizened,’ begun throwin’ sausages out iv th’ window.” The ninth one, Mr. Dooley explained, struck Sen. Albert J. Beveridge (Indiana) on the head “an’ made him a blond.” The senator rushed into the White House to discover “Tiddy engaged in a hand-to-hand conflict with a potted ham.”

Opponents raised every conceivable objection: the slippery-slope argument, the freedom-of-property argument, the pretended horror at the lack of faith in consumer intelligence. The Proprietary [Medicine] Association of America warned, “If the Federal government should regulate Inter-state traffic in drugs on the basis of their therapeutic value, why not regulate traffic in theology, by excluding … all theological books which Dr. Wiley … should find to be ‘misleading in any particular.’” Nevertheless, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed and signed into law on June 30, 1906. (TR later claimed all the credit, ignoring Wiley.)

The strength of the opposition was really felt when it came time to enforce the act. The final bill contained many compromises, and the food and pharmaceutical industries now did their best to weaken the standards proposed by the Department of Agriculture. Their lobbyists had access not only to Congress but to the White House, which turned out to be Wiley’s undoing. He was sincere and intemperate; but so was Roosevelt, whose reformism usually stopped well short of any risk of serious political costs. Wiley provoked TR’s wrath in ways that led the President to call him “nagging, vexatious [and] foolish.” Wiley simply thought that he was trying to tell buyers exactly what they were paying for—dangerous or not—which he called the “application of ethics to digestion.”

In a battle with a President and the President’s Secretary of Agriculture, the contentious bureaucrat was bound to lose in the long run. He won some battles, and his personnel and budget continued to prosper and flourish; but he could not get the cooperation of the solicitor general in prosecuting fraud cases, and he was outflanked and reversed on many labeling and standards decisions. The situation got no better under Taft than Roosevelt, and in 1912 Wiley resigned.

He was by no means a dispirited loser. The previous year, at age sixty-six, he had married a suffragette half his age with whom he had long been in love. Two months after resigning he became the father of a baby boy; a second would follow later. Wiley’s high spirits infused his new “job” of lecturing and writing for the cause. He had a special position at Good Housekeeping magazine, not only as a columnist but as a czar of advertisements, awarding or withholding the famous seal of approval.

He lived for another eighteen years after his resignation, never fully realizing his hopes to see “the food law of the country … administered for the public good as intended.” Absolutist that he was, he could hardly have hoped for total success. At best, pure food and drug laws are complicated and hard to administer. Scientific data are not always clear and conclusive about what impairs health, and the law is full of defensive ambiguities in the definition of fraud. All the same, it does no harm to remember that this scrappy warrior helped remind his generation that there is a “public” in the republic that can be injured by private greed, and that it is a worthwhile objective of politics to enlist in that public’s defense.