The phrase “celebrity chemist” sounds like an oxymoron, but at the turn of the 20th century, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley was just that, a crusading chemist who fought for safe food and accurate food labeling. In The Poison Squad, Deborah Blum, director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program, tells Wiley’s story, as well as the larger story of what happened to our food supply in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Indiana-born Wiley first tested foods at Purdue University, and then moved to the newly formed U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1883. As Americans flocked to cities and the demand for milk, meat and canned food grew, industrial producers added often-poisonous chemicals like formaldehyde, borax and salicylic acid to prevent or hide spoilage. Producers also had little compunction about false labels and ads, or about selling rotten meat and eggs. Wiley and his staff tested foods, drinks, spices and condiments, hoping to influence Congress to pass food-safety laws. Wiley also studied the effect of those chemical additives, recruiting men for what one reporter called the Poison Squad. The Poison Squad recruits ate food laced with borax, and only half the men made it through the five rounds of testing; the others dropped out because of illness, presumably brought on by the borax.
Wiley could be rigid, coming into conflict with his boss and with Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, who worried about government overreach. But he was beloved by the Agriculture Department’s clerks and secretaries for his decades’ worth of efforts to protect the nation’s food. In his 60s, Wiley married ardent suffragist Anna Kelton, a late-life love story. The Poison Squad offers a well-researched portrait of Wiley, rather unappealing food facts and an era of rapid American growth, with a government scrambling to catch up.