The Men Who Poisoned Themselves For Food Safety

“They eat, they drink, and in communion sweet / Quaff immortality and joy.” —John Milton, Paradise Lost

In A Nutshell

We’ve heard the horror stories about unregulated foods and unscrupulous manufacturers that were slowly poisoning their consumers, and change came about in large part because of a pretty amazing group of young men called the Poison Squad. Organized by a doctor and chemist working for the Department of Agriculture, the Poison Squad spent several years eating food tainted with chemicals like sulfuric acid and borax—all things that manufacturers were using on a regular basis. The public outrage following the release of the findings led to the birth of the Pure Food and Drugs Act in 1906.

The Whole Bushel

In the 19th century, there was no such thing as standards when it came to food preparation, storage, and control over ingredients. That all began to change in the 1880s and 1890s, when a chemist and doctor named Harvey Wiley (pictured above) moved from his teaching positions at Purdue University and went to work for the Department of Agriculture.

There, he took up a number of causes, campaigning for regulations that would make food safer. Getting anything through the red tape of the government is a challenge, so he decided to prove his points in a very public way. In 1902, he assembled a group of volunteers who were willing to put themselves through some pretty horrific things, all to make the rest of the nation safer.

He called them the Poison Squad, and that’s exactly what they were signing up for. There were 12 young volunteers, all men, all healthy, who were volunteering to eat meals laced with chemicals and poisons to monitor just what happened to them. They signed up for a year-long experiment, where they would only eat what they were given and subject themselves to countless tests and monitoring. They also promised not to pursue recompense should anything go horribly, horribly wrong.

Their vitals were recorded before each meal, and then they were given meals that were tainted with things like borax, sulfuric acid, and formaldehyde. In order to get around the problem of having volunteers avoiding certain foods because of the taste of the chemicals, they were also given capsules of the poisons to eat in the middle of the meal, allowing researchers to monitor just how much they were ingesting and how long it took to enter their systems and make them sick.

And—obviously—they got really, really sick.

The experiment ended up lasting for five years, with researchers collecting data that showed just how dangerous the chemicals in foods really were. Every kind of food-based illness you can possibly imagine was recorded, with the young men suffering from everything from nausea and headaches to pretty severe vomiting. With manufacturers interested more in the bottom dollar than safe products, Wiley decided to take his findings to the public.

The response was massive. Wiley began sharing his data with reporters and the media, who passed it along to the consumer. They relayed stories of illnesses we recognize as poisoning, and Wiley stopped the experiments when several of the volunteers were so sick that they could finally do nothing besides be sick.

By that time, the public had found out about it and the government got the message. The Pure Food and Drugs Act was passed in 1906. Written with Wiley at the helm, it was one of the first steps in food safety, and all because of a handful of volunteers who knowingly subjected themselves to months of poisons and illnesses.

Over the next decades, Wiley would continue his crusade in food safety, campaigning for stricter regulations in the meat industry. He also helped crack down on turn-of-the-century weight loss cures that were doing more harm than good, and he was one of the first to speak out on the dangers of smoking.

Show Me The Proof

“The “Poison Squad” and the Advent of Food and Drug Regulation,” by Carol Lewis
FDA: Harvey W. Wiley
Oxford Journals: Harvey W. Wiley