The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
By: Deborah Blum
By the end of the nineteenth century, food in America was increasingly dangerous— lethal, even. Milk and meat were routinely preserved with formaldehyde, a practice based on the embalming of corpses. Beer and wine were preserved with salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical; canned vegetables were greened-up by copper sulphate, a toxic metallic salt; rancid butter was made edible with borax, best known as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by adulterated and chemically 'improved' milk. Citizens— activists, journalists, scientists, and wornen's groups— began agitating for change. But although protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the United States Department of Agriculture, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as the Poison Squad. Over the next thirty years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and inimitable Dr. Wiley campaigning tirelessly for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking author Upton Sinclair, who fought to reveal the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land as 'Dr. Wiley's Law.' Deborah Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying David and Goliath tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today.