The Poison Squad: A Chemist’s Quest for Pure Food


Dining Room 2In the fall of 1902, twelve young men in suits regularly gathered for dinners in the basement of a government building in Washington, D.C. The men ate what they were served, even though they knew that their food was spiked with poison. The mastermind behind these experiments was Harvey Washington Wiley. Before you condemn him, though, you’d be surprised to know that you probably owe him a debt of gratitude. Incidentally, Wiley is the founding father of the Food and Drug Administration.

Inside the Episode:

PoisonSquadLogoThe intention of these experiments was not to induce digestive discomfort for its own sake. Rather, they were part of an extensive study on how chemical preservatives in food — before regulations existed — could harm human beings over time. You might cringe at what was once used to keep food “fresh.”

Producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni gave us a closer look inside the story. About diving deep into archival materials, she says,

“I spent hours [at the Library of Congress], reading thousands of [Wiley’s] letters and squinting at his tiny journals.  It is when you know every curve and squiggle of a man’s handwriting that you feel as though you’re starting to get to know him!”

One surprising fact that she discovered while researching the piece was that while Wiley’s experiments contributed so much to food regulation, today’s practices still leave something to be desired:

“…The FDA doesn’t really test food additives anymore.  There are more than five thousand additives commonly found in processed food and most of them haven’t been tested on animals and almost none (except for dietary supplements) have been tested on humans.”

Sruthi sent us some photographs of the Poison Squad, Wiley, and some (how shall I put this?) unconventional tools that were used during the experiments.

WilliamCarterwithWileyandPoisonSquad
William Carter with Wiley and the Poison Squad

 

Wiley Lab
Wiley in his lab

 

Lettershowinginterestinparticipating
A letter showing interest in participating

 

FecalDryingMachine
A fecal drying machine

“None but the brave can eat the fare.” Are you brave enough? Full serving of intrigue and radio in this piece. Bon appetit.

The Poison Squad won Best Radio & Podcast Media at the Jackson Hole Science Media Awards in 2014.

The Poison Squad was produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni with sound design by Brendan Baker. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed for Transistor by Erika Lantz.

All photos: FDA

4 thoughts on “The Poison Squad: A Chemist’s Quest for Pure Food”

  1. I found it interesting that the person who created the Food and Drug Administration tested poison on humans. I also find it interesting that people were willing to try the food, even though they knew it was poisoned.

  2. After reading Poison control I believe that it is a little crazy to be testing on humans. I also thought it was cool how a discovery from the early 1900’s still greatly impacts food regulation in modern times.

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