The Poison Squad: An Incredible History

The Poison Squad: An Incredible History

The Poison Squad: An Incredible History

Whereas the kitchen within the basement of the Agriculture Department’s offices in Washington DC was unorthodox, it was laborious to fault the meals. The menu was extensive and diverse, and the chef, recognized solely as “Perry,” had a powerful resume, including a stint because the “head chef for the Queen of Bavaria.” The chicken was recent, the potatoes perfectly ready, the asparagus toothsome but not robust. Every little thing was of the very best high quality.

including the poison.

At first, it was borax, a vivid white mineral, finely ground, and shipped in recent from the burnings wastes of Demise Valley, CA, the place it was mined. Perry hid it within the butter, till he seen that the twelve staff who took their meals at his desk have been avoiding the unfold. Subsequent, he blended it in with their milk, however they stopped ingesting the milk, too, complaining that it tasted “metallic.” Lastly, Perry gave up, and began packing the borax into capsules. Between programs, the diners would dutifully wash them down.

In 1902, when the group that ate at Perry’s desk first convened, it did not have a reputation. Its chief, the Agriculture Department’s Chief Chemist, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, referred to the undertaking because the “hygienic desk trials,” however it wasn’t lengthy earlier than Washington Publish reporter George Rothwell Brown got here up with a greater title: The Poison Squad.

The objective of the Poison Squad was easy: they have been tasked with making an attempt among the mostly used meals components in an effort to decide their results. Throughout every of the poison squads trials, the members would eat steadily growing quantities of every additive, fastidiously monitoring the influence that it had on their our bodies. They’d cease when the members began to get sick.


The human lab rats have been “twelve younger clerks, vigorous and voracious.” All have been graduates of the civil service examination, all have been screened for “excessive ethical character,” and all had reputations for “sobriety and reliability.” One was a former Yale sprinter, one other a captain within the native highschool’s cadet regiment, and a 3rd a scientist in his personal proper. All twelve took oaths, pledging one year of service, promising to solely eat meals that was ready within the Poison Squad’s kitchen, and waiving their proper to sue the federal government for damages — including demise — that may outcome from their participation in this system.

Squad members wanted lots of persistence. Earlier than every meal, they needed to weigh themselves, take their temperatures and test their pulse charges. Their stools, urine, hair and sweat have been collected, and so they needed to undergo weekly physicals. When one member received a haircut with out permission, he was allegedly despatched again to the barber with orders to gather his shorn locks. A lot of the squad members did not get further pay for his or her hazardous responsibility: in return for his or her persistence and obedience, they obtained three sq. meals a day — all of which have been fastidiously poisoned.

There was yet one more rule: though lots of the most distinguished meals crusaders have been ladies, squad members needed to be males. An outspoken misogynist, Dr. Wiley was vulnerable to referring to ladies as “savages,” claiming that they lacked “the mind capability” of males. His workers was equally inclined: when this system changed Chef Perry with a feminine cook dinner, one employee griped that women weren’t match for cooking — or poisoning. “A girl! Tut, tut. Why the very concept!,” he reportedly stated, “A girl can potter round a home fireplace, however in terms of frying eggs in a scientific mode and placing formaldehyde within the soup — by no means.”

Wiley had different quirks. A Civil Struggle veteran and graduate of Indiana Medical Faculty and Harvard, he was among the many first professors employed at Purdue College. He was additionally one of many first fired, an unlucky flip of occasions that occurred when he scandalized the College administration by enjoying baseball and shopping for a bicycle -– a mode of conveyance that, within the phrases of one of many College’s trustees, made him look “like a monkey … astride a cartwheel.”


At Purdue, Wiley experimented with meals components, testing every chemical by, in his phrases, “making an attempt it on the canine.” Quickly after getting employed by the Agriculture Department, he waded into the pure meals battle, pushing for federal regulation of components. In response, high-paid lobbyists from the packing and canning industries went on the offensive, shutting down every of Wiley’s proposed payments.

To indicate the bodily prices of meals components, Wiley designed the desk trials — and satisfied Congress to offer him $5,000 to fund them. Formally, the objective was to “examine the character of meals preservatives, coloring issues, and different substances added to meals, to find out their relation to digestion and to well being, and to determine the ideas which ought to information their use.” Unofficially, Wiley hoped to make use of the desk trials as a springboard to enact widespread meals regulation.

Wiley’s first goal was borax. Some of the widespread meals preservatives in 1902, it tightened up animal proteins, giving the impression of freshness; consequently, packers usually used it to physician decomposing meat. From October 1902 to July 1903, Wiley’s squad ate it with each meal, as was demonstrated by a Christmas menu revealed by the Poison Squad’s kitchen: “Apple Sauce. Borax. Soup. Borax. Turkey. Borax. Borax. Canned Stringed Beans. Candy Potatoes. White Potatoes. Turnips. Borax. Chipped Beef. Cream Gravy. Cranberry Sauce. Celery. Pickles. Rice Pudding. Milk. Bread and Butter. Tea. Espresso. A Little Borax.”

The Poison Squad quickly grew to become well-known for its borax consumption, and Wiley grew to become popularly often known as “Previous Borax.” Earlier than lengthy, the group decided that borax did, certainly, trigger complications, stomachaches, and different digestive pains…along with imparting an disagreeable taste to meals.


Borax defeated, the poison squad moved on to check different widespread components, including sulfuric acid, saltpeter and formaldehyde. One in every of their targets, copper sulfate, was particularly disturbing: utilized by meals producers to show canned peas a vivid shade of inexperienced, it additionally brought about a number of well being woes, including nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, liver injury, kidney injury, mind injury, and jaundice. Right now, it is generally used as a pesticide.

Even after Wiley’s squad managed to display the unfavorable results of a number of components, he nonetheless needed to battle in opposition to the highly effective meals foyer. Actually, the Secretary of Agriculture himself suppressed a number of of the Poison Squad’s stories; the one on benzoic acid solely received out as a result of a staffer misunderstood his orders and despatched it out to print whereas the Secretary was on trip.

However whereas lobbyists might suppress Wiley’s findings, they could not management newspapers, which breathlessly reported on the group’s menus and members, its poisons and their results. Afraid that the press would possibly trivialize his efforts, Wiley tried to stem the tide, instituting a blackout and threatening to fireside any member of the squad who leaked data. This did not hold tales from showing within the papers: denied entry to information, reporters printed rumors and made up elaborate tales. Finally, Wiley relented, and began to actively publicize the squad. As he later bragged, “My poison squad laboratory grew to become probably the most extremely marketed boarding-house on this planet.”

The Poison Squad was additionally memorialized in songs and ads (pdf). Essentially the most well-known was most likely “The Music of the Pizen (Poison) Squad,” by poet S.W. Gillilan, a poem that exaggerated the squad’s exploits:

On Prussic acid we break our quick;

we lunch on a morphine stew;

We dine with a matchhead consomme,

drink carbolic acid brew;

Corrosive sublimate tones us up

like laudanum ketchup uncommon,

Whereas tyro-toxicon condiments

are healthful as mountain air.

Thus all of the “deadlies” we double-dare

to place us beneath the sod;

We’re death-immunes and we’re proud as proud–

Hooray for the Pizen Squad!

Wiley’s efforts finally paid off. On 1906, Congress handed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Meals and Drug Act – the primary federal legal guidelines geared toward meals regulation. Within the course of, Wiley additionally needed to cede his bully pulpit to the largest bully of all of them: Teddy Roosevelt. Though the Pure Meals and Drug Act was initially often known as “the Wiley Act,” Roosevelt took full credit score for its passage, leaving Wiley within the chilly.

Even so, Wiley’s energy grew: the Bureau of Chemistry was charged with implementing the brand new regulation. The Poison Squad closed up store in 1907, and Wiley left the Agriculture Department in 1912, transferring on to change into head of testing for Good Housekeeping. And if there was some irony within the famed misogynist changing into the general public face of one in every of America’s most distinguished ladies’s publications, it was solely added to by the truth that, in 1911, he married Anna Kelton, a suffragette who was actually half his age. By all accounts, the pair led a cheerful life collectively: that they had two sons, and have been nonetheless married when Wiley died on June 30, 1930, on the 24th anniversary of the passage of the Pure Meals and Drug Act. Right now, they’re buried collectively in Arlington National Cemetery, a becoming tribute to the person who continues to be known as “The Father of the FDA.”

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