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The Poison Squad: An Incredible History


BY BRU CE WA TSON
JUN 27, 2013

DIRECTIONS: Read the article below and answer the questions that follow.
While the kitchen in the basement of the Agriculture Department's offices in Washington DC was unorthodox, it
was hard to fault the food. The menu was wide and varied, and the chef, known only as "Perry," had an impressive
resume, including a stint as the "head chef for the Queen of Bavaria." The chicken was fresh, the potatoes perfectly
prepared, the asparagus toothsome yet not tough. Everything was of the highest quality. Including the poison.
At first, it was borax, a bright white mineral, finely ground, and shipped in fresh from the burnings wastes of Death
Valley, CA, where it was mined. Perry hid it in the butter, until he noticed that the twelve workers who took their
meals at his table were avoiding the spread. Next, he mixed it in with their milk, but they stopped drinking the milk,
too, complaining that it tasted "metallic." Finally, Perry gave up, and began packing the borax into capsules.
Between courses, the diners would dutifully wash them down.
In 1902, when the group that ate at Perry's table first convened, it didn't have a name. Its leader, the Agriculture
Department's Chief Chemist, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, referred to the project as the "hygienic table trials," but
it wasn't long before Washington Post reporter George Rothwell Brown came up with a better name: The Poison
Squad.
The goal of the Poison Squad was simple: they were tasked with trying some of the most commonly used food
additives in order to determine their effects. During each of the poison squads trials, the members would eat
steadily increasing amounts of each additive, carefully tracking the impact that it had on their bodies. They would
stop when the members started to get sick.
THE RIGHT STUFF
The human lab rats were "twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious." All were graduates of the civil service
exam, all were screened for "high moral character," and all had reputations for "sobriety and reliability." One was a
former Yale sprinter, another a captain in the local high school's cadet regiment, and a third a scientist in his own
right. All twelve took oaths, pledging one year of service, promising to only eat food that was prepared in the
Poison Squad's kitchen, and waiving their right to sue the government for damages -- including death -- that might
result from their participation in the program.
Squad members needed a lot of patience. Before each meal, they had to weigh themselves, take their temperatures
and check their pulse rates. Their stools, urine, hair and sweat were collected, and they had to submit to weekly
physicals. When one member got a haircut without permission, he was allegedly sent back to the barber with orders
to collect his shorn locks. Most of the squad members didn't get extra pay for their hazardous duty: in return for
their patience and obedience, they received three square meals a day -- all of which were carefully poisoned.
There was one more rule: although many of the most prominent food crusaders were women, squad members had
to be men. An outspoken misogynist, Dr. Wiley was prone to referring to women as "savages," claiming that they
lacked "the brain capacity" of men. His staff was similarly inclined: when the program replaced Chef Perry with a
female cook, one worker griped that ladies were not fit for cooking or poisoning. "A woman! Tut, tut. Why the
very idea!," he reportedly said, "A woman can potter around a domestic hearth, but when it comes to frying eggs in
a scientific mode and putting formaldehyde in the soup -- never."
Wiley had other quirks. A Civil War veteran and graduate of Indiana Medical College and Harvard, he was among
the first professors hired at Purdue University. He was also one of the first fired, an unfortunate turn of events that
occurred when he scandalized the University administration by playing baseball and buying a bicycle - a mode of

conveyance that, in the words of one of the University's trustees, made him look "like a monkey astride a
cartwheel."
ONE MAN'S VISION
At Purdue, Wiley experimented with food additives, testing each chemical by, in his words, "trying it on the dog."
Soon after getting hired by the Agriculture Department, he waded into the pure food fight, pushing for federal
regulation of additives. In response, high-paid lobbyists from the packing and canning industries went on the
offensive, shutting down each of Wiley's proposed bills.
To show the physical costs of food additives, Wiley designed the table trials -- and convinced Congress to give him
$5,000 to fund them. Officially, the goal was to "investigate the character of food preservatives, coloring matters,
and other substances added to foods, to determine their relation to digestion and to health, and to establish the
principles which should guide their use." Unofficially, Wiley hoped to use the table trials as a springboard to enact
widespread food regulation.
Wiley's first target was borax. One of the most common food preservatives in 1902, it tightened up animal proteins,
giving the impression of freshness; consequently, packers often used it to doctor decomposing meat. From October
1902 to July 1903, Wiley's squad ate it with every meal, as was demonstrated by a Christmas menu published by the
Poison Squad's kitchen: "Apple Sauce. Borax. Soup. Borax. Turkey. Borax. Borax. Canned Stringed Beans. Sweet
Potatoes. White Potatoes. Turnips. Borax. Chipped Beef. Cream Gravy. Cranberry Sauce. Celery. Pickles. Rice
Pudding. Milk. Bread and Butter. Tea. Coffee. A Little Borax."
The Poison Squad soon became famous for its borax consumption, and Wiley became popularly known as "Old
Borax." Before long, the group determined that borax did, indeed, cause headaches, stomachaches, and other
digestive painsin addition to imparting an unpleasant flavor to food.
A LEGEND BUILDS
Borax defeated, the poison squad moved on to test other common additives, including sulfuric acid, saltpeter and
formaldehyde. One of their targets, copper sulfate, was especially disturbing: used by food producers to turn canned
peas a bright shade of green, it also caused a host of health woes, including nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, liver damage,
kidney damage, brain damage, and jaundice. Today, it's commonly used as a pesticide.
Even after Wiley's squad managed to demonstrate the negative effects of several additives, he still had to fight
against the powerful food lobby. In fact, the Secretary of Agriculture himself suppressed several of the Poison
Squad's reports; the one on benzoic acid only got out because a staffer misunderstood his orders and sent it out to
print while the Secretary was on vacation.
But while lobbyists could suppress Wiley's findings, they couldn't control newspapers, which breathlessly reported
on the group's menus and members, its poisons and their effects. Afraid that the press might trivialize his efforts,
Wiley tried to stem the tide, instituting a blackout and threatening to fire any member of the squad who leaked
information. This didn't keep stories from appearing in the papers: denied access to facts, reporters printed rumors
and made up elaborate tales. Eventually, Wiley relented, and began to actively publicize the squad. As he later
bragged, "My poison squad laboratory became the most highly advertised boarding-house in the world."
The Poison Squad was also memorialized in songs and advertisements (pdf). The most famous was probably "The
Song of the Pizen (Poison) Squad," by poet S.W. Gillilan, a poem that exaggerated the squad's exploits:
On Prussic acid we break our fast;
we lunch on a morphine stew;
We dine with a matchhead consomme,
drink carbolic acid brew;

Corrosive sublimate tones us up


like laudanum ketchup rare,
While tyro-toxicon condiments
are wholesome as mountain air.
Thus all the "deadlies" we double-dare
to put us beneath the sod;
We're death-immunes and we're proud as proud-Hooray for the Pizen Squad!
Wiley's efforts eventually paid off. On 1906, Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug
Act the first federal laws aimed at food regulation. In the process, Wiley also had to cede his bully pulpit to the
biggest bully of them all: Teddy Roosevelt. Although the Pure Food and Drug Act was originally known as "the
Wiley Act," Roosevelt took full credit for its passage, leaving Wiley in the cold.
Even so, Wiley's power grew: the Bureau of Chemistry was charged with enforcing the new law. The Poison Squad
closed up shop in 1907, and Wiley left the Agriculture Department in 1912, moving on to become head of testing
for Good Housekeeping. And if there was some irony in the famed misogynist becoming the public face of one of
America's most prominent women's publications, it was only added to by the fact that, in 1911, he married Anna
Kelton, a suffragette who was literally half his age. By all accounts, the pair led a happy life together: they had two
sons, and were still married when Wiley died on June 30, 1930, on the 24th anniversary of the passage of the Pure
Food and Drug Act. Today, they're buried together in Arlington National Cemetery, a fitting tribute to the man
who is still referred to as "The Father of the FDA."
1. What was the job of the Poison Squad?

2. What opposition did Wiley face to his discoveries?

3. What role did newspapers play in helping Wiley silence his opponents?

What progress was gained by the Pure Food and Drug Act? What had to be sacrificed?