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Doctor Wiley And His Poison Squad

June 2024
6min read

The father of the Pure Food and Drug Act was as hard on his allies as he was on his foes

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?”

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.

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