Who Put The Borax In Dr. Wiley’s Butter?


On a hot and humid July morning in 1902, a burly, aoo-pound scientist and connoisseur of good food and drink sat hunched over his desk in a red brick building in Washington and planned deliberately to feed twelve healthy young men a diet containing borax. Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, chief chemist of the Department of Agriculture, had in mind a double objective: first, to determine the effects upon human beings of certain chemicals then commonly used to preserve processed foods; and, more broadly, to educate the public in the need for a federal “pure food” law. Food preparation was becoming industrialized and subject to more complicated processing; products were traveling longer distances, passing through many hands. Manufacturers, facing a novel situation, turned to dubious additives to make their products appear more appetizing or to preserve them. Borax compounds, the first object of Dr. Wiley’s investigations, were used to make old butter seem like new.

Volunteers for the experiment were recruited from the Department of Agriculture. They pledged themselves to obey the rules. A small kitchen and dining room were fitted out in the basement of the Bureau of Chemistry offices with the assistant surgeon-general in attendance to see to it that the subjects of the experiment did not get too much borax, and Dr. Wiley to see that they got enough. A bright reporter, George Rothwell Brown, of the Washington Post, gave the volunteers an enduring handle, “the poison squad”; and before long the public began referring to Wiley, affectionately or otherwise according to the point of view, as “Old Borax.”

Six of Dr. Wiley’s co-operators at the hygienic table got a normal ration plus measured doses of tasteless, odorless, invisible boracic acid. The other six also enjoyed a wholesome diet, with equally tasteless, odorless, invisible borate of soda added to their menu. The resulting chemical and physiological data was quite technical. But the meaning was clear. The effects of borax included nausea and loss of appetite, symptoms resembling those of influenza and overburdened kidneys. The feeding experiments continued over a fiveyear period. After the borax initiation, which made a popular sensation, the squad subsequently breakfasted, lunched, and dined on dishes containing salicylates, sulfurons acid and sulfites, benzoates, formaldehyde, sulfate of copper, and saltpeter. Seldom has a scientific experiment stirred the public imagination as did Dr. Wiley’s novel procedures in, as he said, “trying it on the dog.”

“My poison squad laboratory,” said Dr. Wiley, “became the most highly advertised boarding-house in the world.”

A popular versifier wrote a poem about it, the “Song of the Pizen Squad.” Lew Dockstader introduced a topical song into his minstrel show. The chorus dosed with the prediction:

Next week he’ll give them mothballs à la Newburgh or else plain: O they may get over it but they’ll never look the same!

The New York Sun sourly handed Wiley the title of “chief janitor and policeman of the people’s insides,” an expression of one line of attack which the opposition was to take—invasion of personal liberty.

The movement to protect the health and pocketbook of the consumer was directed no less at “the patent medicine evil” than it was at the chaotic situation in the food manufacturing field. The “cures” lor cancer, tuberculosis, “female weakness,” the dangerous fat reducers and “Indian” cough remedies were a bonanza for their proprietors, and many an advertising wizard who knew little enough of drugs or materia medica came to live in a jigsaw mansion and drive a spanking pair of bays because he was a skillful manipulator of hypochondria and mass psychology. Slashing exposés in the popular magazines told of babies’ soothing syrups containing morphine and opium, of people who became narcotic addicts, of the use of tonics that depended upon alcohol to make the patient feel frisky.

“Gullible America,” said Samuel Hopkins Adams in an angry but thoroughly documented series of articles, “will spend this year [1905] some seventy-five millions of dollars” in order to “swallow huge quantities of alcohol … narcotics … dangerous heart depressants … insidious liver stimulants.”

The nostrum vendors at first looked upon the Food and Drugs Act as a joke. In time the manufacturers of Pink Pills for Pale People learned the hard way that they were living dangerously when they ignored the precept, “Thou shall not lie on the label.”

As public interest rose in “the food question,” powerful groups took their places in the line of battle to contest the pure food and drug bills which appeared, and died, in Congress with monotonous regularity. On the one side were aligned consumer groups—the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National Consumers’ League, the Patrons of Husbandry, and the labor unions. With them stood food chemists who had had experience in state control work, the American Medical Association, important periodicals ( Collier’s Weekly , Bok’s Ladies’ Home Journal , World’s Work , The Independent , Cosmopolitan ), President Theodore Roosevelt, and Dr. Wiley.