Pure Food, the Press, and the Poison Squad:

Evaluating Coverage of
Harvey W. Wiley's Hygienic Table

Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2001-2013, All Rights Reserved)

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.

0 we're the merriest herd of hulks
that ever the world has seen;
We don't shy off from your rough
on rats or even from Paris green:
We're on the hunt for a toxic dope
That's certain to kill, sans fail.
But 'tis a tricky, elusive thing and
knows we are on its trail;
For all the things that could kill
we've downed in many a gruesome wad,
And still we're gaining a pound a day,
for we are the Pizen Squad.
On Prussic acid we break our fast;
we lunch on a morphine stew;
We dine with a matchhead consomme,
drink carbolic acid brew;
Corrosive sublimate tones us up
like laudanum. ketchup rare,
While tyro-toxicon condiments
are wholesome as mountain air.
Thus all the "deadlies" we double-dare
to put us beneath the sod;
We're death-immunes and we're proud as proud--
Hooray for the Pizen Squad!

- The Song of the Poison Squad, S.W. Gillilan1

Arguably one of the most enduring pieces of legislation passed during the two decades we refer to as the Progressive era is the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the bill which, in creating the Food and Drug administration, granted the federal government unprecedented authority to oversee and regulate the actions of the market participants in the food and pharmaceutical industries. And yet, the story of how the Pure Food and Drug Act obtained enough public support to secure its passage is a case study in the law of unintended consequences. For although the issue of pure food had been long promoted by women's groups, public health advocates, and other progressive organizations, it only began to gain real legislative steam after an inadvertent media phenomenon, which accompanied the onset of tainted food experiments conducted on human volunteers by Dr. Harvey W, Wiley in the fall of 1902.

This study explores the coverage of that first "poison squad" study -- the Borax trials of 1902 and 1903 -- in the pages of the Washington Post. The Post was chosen not only because it was the "local paper" of Wiley and his band of human test subjects, but also because George Rothwell Brown, then a cub reporter for the Post, is considered by most sources -- including Wiley himself -- to have been the preeminent chronicler of the poison squad experiments. Indeed, it was Brown who coined the term "poison squad" to describe these men who voluntarily ingested potentially injurious preservatives in the name of public health.2

Examining the newspaper coverage of that critical first year in the life of the poison squad tells us much about Wiley the man and the conduct of his groundbreaking experiments on human subjects. In addition, it offers considerable insights into the cultural climate of progressivism and the general receptivity of the public to scientific endeavors at the dawn of the twentieth century. Moreover, I would submit that Wiley's public relations experience in 1902 and 1903, coming as it did at the beginning of the media age, represents one of the first times in American public health history in which the mobilization of public opinion became as important as, if not more important then, the underlying scientific rationale behind a particular public health reform. In fact, it was the interest awakened in the public consciousness by the media coverage of Wiley's experiments, much more than his scientific findings per se, that were most helpful in securing the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, a pattern of influence that would be repeated many times in the years to come.3

Continue to Part II.

1. Wiley, Harvey W., Harvey W. Wiley: An Autobiography, The Bobbs-Merrill Company (Indianapolis: 1930), 217-218.
2. Wiley, Autobiography, 216-217. As he puts it in his distinctively purple prose, "One young pencil-pusher just beginning his career had the happy faculty of presenting the progress of the experiments in terms that appealed to the public imagination. It was he, in fact, who gave the squad its significant and immortal designation."
3. Of course, the battle for pure food is only half of the story, since the 1906 Act also helped bring an end to the flow of adulterated drugs in America, thus inhibiting the thriving turn-of-the-century industry of medical quackery. Nary a page goes by in the Washington Post during this period where one cannot find multiple advertisements for "swamp root", peruna, or some other consumer-oriented concoction of dubious medical value. Although Wiley made a number of public pronouncements in favor of regulating the trade and consumption of pharmaceuticals during the period in question, nevertheless, for the sake of brevity, food is the aim of this study.
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