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The Poison Squad, 1902, US Government, Georgetown Medical School

Updated: Oct 29, 2021

In 1902 Harvey Wiley, Director of the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry, recruited a dozen young men to serve as subjects in an experiment. The men, mostly students at Georgetown Medical School, were offered free room and board and nightly gourmet meals for their participation. In exchange, they agreed to eat suspected poisons.

At that time there was no regulation of food additives. The country was rapidly urbanizing and to meet the surging demand for city-dweller food, the food industry had come into existence. Wiley suspected that many of the common food additives were dangerous, even deadly, but he needed evidence. So, he recruited his team of young men, adding the suspected toxins and commonly used additives (such as borax, formaldehyde, and benzoate) to their otherwise first-rate diet, and observing the effects.

The men called themselves the Poison Squad and they became national (albeit anonymous) celebrities—inspiring songs, jokes and poems, as well as a sort of gallows-humor camaraderie among themselves.

The public fascination with the Poison Squad resulted in an increased awareness of the problem of unregulated food additives and led directly to Congress passing the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, making it a federal crime to manufacture or sell “adulterated or misbranded or poisonous” food, and requiring labels listing all the ingredients in a food product.

His Poison Squad experiment was discontinued in 1907, but Wiley devoted the rest of his career to crusading for safer food. Harvey Washington Wiley is remembered as the father of the Pure Food and Drug Act. He was born on October 18, 1844, one hundred seventy-seven years ago today.

By the way, some of the Poison Squad members did get sick and one died of tuberculosis (perhaps due to being weakened by his diet). But while Wiley concluded that their chemical-laced diets had them all “on a slow approach to death,” no one died directly from the poisons during the experiment.

The photo is of Wiley and some of his Poison Squad. The men were required to dress formally for their nightly dinners.



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