Evaluating Coverage of
Harvey W. Wiley's Hygienic Table
Kevin C. Murphy, Columbia University
(Copyright 2001-2013, All Rights Reserved)
Indeed, true to the optimism and confidence in technical expertise that characterizes much of the early progressive era, public health officials of the time increasingly believed that the new tools of science could be used to mitigate -- and eliminate -- virtually every threat to the public health of the polity. And, although Dr. Harvey W. Wiley, chief of the Bureau of Chemistry in the Agriculture Department, had been considered quite unorthodox by his professorial colleagues during an earlier stint at Purdue University, he in fact shared the scientific optimism of the majority of his progressive public health compatriots.6 "I arrive at my conclusions by experimentation, when experimentation can be used at all," noted Wiley in his autobiography, "I believe in 'trying it on the dog.'"7
Fortunately for pure food advocates, but perhaps unfortunately for the men who found themselves under his microscope, Harvey Wiley's experiments weren't restricted to dogs alone. In the fall of 1902, working from an act of Congress that allowed "the Secretary of Agriculture to investigate the character of food preservatives, coloring matters, and other substances added to foods, to determine their relation to digestion and health, and to establish the principles which should guide their use," Harvey Wiley undertook what eventually became known as the "poison squad" experiments.8 As the Post explained it on November 21, 1902, at the start of the tests, "the United States government on next morning will open, for the first time in history, a scientific boarding-house, under the direction of Prof. Wiley:"
Twelve young clerks, vigorous and voracious, have volunteered to become boarders free of charge, in the interest of science. They will eat food treated with various chemicals to prove whether or not borax and formaldehyde are injurious...[Half the boarders] will be fed with "pure" foods, untreated meats and vegetables, while the other half will partake of the same fare submitted to chemical treatment."9
Contrary to what would now be considered proper scientific methodology, these control and test groups would be switched every two weeks -- one receiving borax "in the form of boracic acid, and to the other six borate of soda," so that eventually every one of the test subjects seated around the "hygienic table" would at some time or another be eating tainted food.10 Borax was chosen by Wiley as the first additive to be administered to the palates of the poison squad because it was the safest, most widely used, and thus "the most important of the commonly used preservatives."11
In addition to consuming food peppered with borax on a daily basis:
each individual subject pledged himself to abstain entirely from food and drink not prepared by the scientists in charge of the dining-rooms...Should they become hungry between meals, they must wait until the official dinner bell rings. If they grow thirsty during working hours, they may watch the water cooler with longing eyes, but nothing more...They cannot even drink a friendly glass of beer.12And, as if forgoing the necessity of water and the pleasures of alcohol weren't indignity enough, each of the twelve volunteers also had to be "stripped and weighed and his physical condition carefully noted" before each meal.13 Moreover, each volunteer "carried a satchel wherever he went with containers for urine and feces to be delivered daily to the chemists."14
All of these diet restrictions and unsavory details beg the question, who in their right mind would volunteer to be a human guinea pig for such a trial? Wiley himself is relatively unhelpful in pursuing this question. "It would not do to give [the volunteers'] names," Wiley tells the Post, although he does note that "they are clerks, waiting for small salaries, and the item of free board [however poisoned] will be a big one to them."15 In his 447-page final report on the effects of borax, which is long-winded in every other respect, Wiley only refers to his test subjects by their initials -- although he does remark that, since all volunteers in the poison squad had passed the civil service exam, "the moral character of the applicants, their reputation for sobriety and reliability, and their general reputation among those intimately acquainted with them" had all already been clearly established.16
And Wiley is no more forthcoming about his volunteers in his 1930 autobiography -- indeed, he devotes only 5 pages of a 300-page tome to the poison squad tests, even though he remarks that "[u]p to this time, no such extensive experiment on human beings had been planned anywhere in the world."17 Therein, he mentions solely that the volunteers were "young, robust fellows," chosen "with maximum resistance to deleterious effects of adulterated foods" in mind.18 Thus, if Dr. Wiley formed a personal connection with any of his test subjects over the course of the poison squad trials, it is not clearly evident in any of his major writings or in contemporaneous news reports.
For his part, Post reporter George Rothwell Brown, renowned chronicler of the poison squad's exploits, eventually divulged the names of the first round of experiment participants. But other than noting that one, B.J. Teasdale, was "once Yale's famous 100-yard dash sprinter," another, a "C. Orton," was "formerly a captain in the local High School cadet regiment," and a third, Eugene R. McCarthy of Pennsylvania, was "the only one of the Emerald Isle's sons among the twelve subjects," Brown also offered little in the way of biography to explain the motivation behind the dietary sacrifices of these hardy souls.19
Indeed, if Brown had any more ethical issues than Dr. Wiley about serving potentially poisonous chemicals to human guinea pigs, it wasn't evident anywhere in his reporting. Throughout their run, Brown's Post stories reflect a tone of general bemusement with the experiment and the plight of the Poison Squad volunteers, a bemusement that is reflected in much of the science journalism of the period. As historian James Harvey Young has noted, "[s]cience, during these years, seemed as much a theme for levity in the press as for sober scrutiny."20
Examples of this journalistic jocularity in Brown's dispatches abound. In one early piece, Brown reports that the "progress of science [is] blocked" because "one of Uncle Sam's scientific boarders insists on getting fat, and another one is equally prone to become thin." Between the two of them, declares Brown, "Dr. Wiley is in despair."21 In another, Brown tells the tale of how one test subject "in the spirit of mischief, dropped into the lean boarder's coffee about ten grains of quinine" which took effect as the unsuspecting victim was on a theater date. "The thin boarder, who [later] told the story himself, said he went home prepared to die in the interest of science."22
Yet another early piece surveys Christmas at the Wiley Boarding House and laments that "the boys had had many invitations to dinner, but these they could not accept, much to their regret, and this added to the atmosphere of gloom," a gloom so pervasive that even "the ping-pong game schedule for yesterday afternoon was postponed."23 The Christmas report also offered the Post's readership a glimpse of the "unprinted and unofficial menu" of the day, which read:
As if the prospects of such a Borax-heavy Christmas without dinner companionship or ping-pong competition weren't dour enough, the holiday was further marred by the fact that "Perry, the civil service cook, who keeps his certificate from Commissioner Procter in the salt jar -- now replaced by the borax beaker -- was not in tune with the day, and cooked the turkey a trifle too much on one side."25 Perry the cook, apparently once the "head chef for the Queen of Bavaria" whose "partiality for Apple Sause [was] a source of apprehension" among the members of the poison squad - is a frequent protagonist in Brown's articles, and he is much more fully fleshed out as a person than are the actual test subjects. This is no doubt because Chef Perry remained one of Brown's key sources well after Dr. Wiley tried to shut the budding journalist down.26
For Dr. Wiley and his colleagues at the Department of Agriculture, displaying a near-religious zeal for preserving the sanctity of their science, quickly tried to suppress the levity of Brown's coverage by closing all official avenues of communication to the press. Moreover, Wiley issued a gag order on all the "poison squad" volunteers "by threat of dismissal." As Brown ascertains Wiley's reasoning for this media silence, the "experts in charge...would not for the world have the public come to regard the experiments from any other than a serious point of view -- as a scientific test of world-wide significance and import."27 Expounding on this remark in a later article, Brown writes:
The authorities are apprehensive that unless the public can be brought to look upon the experiments as an enterprise undertaken by scientific men and carried out in sober earnest, with a view to deciding a question of vast import to the country at large, the results of their self-sacrificing labors and patient investigation will be partially if not entirely lost. Any suspicion or belief in the public mind that there is a humorous or insincere element or phase connected with the experiments deserving of scoffing or ridicule would be deplorable in its effect.28Thus, however much the growing public interest in the poison squad experiments might have helped to expand public support for a pure food law, Dr. Wiley originally aimed to restrict the flow of information about his human experiments in the name of preserving the sobriety of science from the folly of journalism. Brown alludes further to this grim necessity evinced by Wiley when he suggests that the doctor aimed to remain silent "until the whole matter [can be] presented to the attention of the scientific world in the form of a voluminous and profusely illustrated government report in cold type, translatable into German and other foreign tongues."29
Yet, despite Wiley's best efforts to control the flow of information to reporters, the saga of the poison squad nevertheless quickly caught the fancy of the public at large. Poems such as "The Song of the Poison Squad" (reprinted on Page 1) soon appeared in magazines around the country, and advertisements popped up on city streetcars that read, "A diller, a doller, a chemical scholar, What makes you grow so thin? Because the civil service cook has put the borax in."30 Supreme Court justices could be heard jesting about the Squad in public, and even minstrel shows got in on the act, as evidenced by the following Lew Dockstader ditty, "They'll Never Look the Same":
Look out that Professor Wiley doesn't make you a recruit.
He's got a lot of fellows there that tell him how they feel,
They take a batch of poison every time they eat a meal.
For breakfast they get cyanide of liver, coffin shaped,
For dinner, undertaker's pie, all trimmed with crepe;
For supper, arsenic fritters, fried in appetizing shade,
And late at night they get a prussic acid lemonade.
They may get over it, but they'll never look the same.
That kind of a bill of fare would drive most men insane.
Next week he'll give them moth balls,
a LA Newburgh, or else plain.
They may get over it, but they'll never look the same.31
Nor did Wiley's media blackout manage very successfully to stifle George Rothwell Brown. Although the cub reporter wrote less frequently about the poison squad after he became persona non grata at the hygienic table, Brown made up for it by penning articles of increasing outrageousness, including (at least) one piece that was patently untrue. "The borax, acid, and what not mixed in [the volunteers'] food have worked a change in the complexion of the fourteen government clerks [two more were added in March of 1903] quite inexplicable to the scientific mind," declared the Post on April 12, 1903. For "each of the young men undergoing the heroic course of treatment has blossomed out with a bright pink complexion that would make a society belle sick with envy":
As a result, chemicals of all kinds at the bureau have jumped 100 points above par. The boarders no longer object to eating any quantity of scientific mixtures. There is something in it for them now, and they are, in consequence, the most clamorous beef eaters in Washington...[in the words of one boarder] "there was one fellow at the observation table who had a complexion when he first came to the bureau like one of the 57 varieties. Now his own girl wouldn't know him. He's got a skin like the inside of a strawberry. We call him Miss -- but I can't tell you his name. Anyhow he doesn't like to be called Miss."32
Although the pink cheeks story was repudiated by the paper a year later, after Wiley had given up on the media blackout strategy, other blackout-era Brown articles on the poison squad are scarcely less outlandish.33 In one he explains how a volunteer who "showed up for breakfast with his head shaved as smooth as the White House tennis court" was forced to rush back to the barber shop to "procure the hair which had been cut off, in order that it might be weighed." Sadly, the volunteer "could not pick out his own from the tonsorial mass on the barber shop floor," and thus the scientific basis for Wiley's experiment was further compromised.34 In another article, Brown details a "boarding-house rebellion" that put Wiley's project "on the verge of collapse," in which the volunteers refused to eat poisoned meat on account of Lent. According to the article, after Wiley tried to defuse the situation by giving "a stirring speech" that asserted that "even religious scruples could be laid aside safely in the interest of science," it was decided to give everyone poisoned vegetables instead, a capitulation which greatly offended some of the "irreligious boarders" who missed their meat.35
Perhaps because of this increase in reportorial levity following the public relations blackout, Dr. Wiley began to relax his earlier stance on maintaining official silence as the borax testing of the poison squad drew to a close in the summer of 1903, and instead began to cultivate relationships with certain reporters, including George Rothwell Brown. As one historian put it, "[s]ince reports from the experimental table, fact or fiction, seemed certain to continue, the chief chemist took reporters into his confidence, given them facts ready for release and trusting them not to reveal prematurely other things he told them."36
But, reading coverage of the poison squad after the media blackout was lifted, one wonders if it might have been better policy for "Old Borax," as Wiley came to be called by journalists after embarking on this media-friendly phase, to keep his mouth shut. For example, in an article marking the beginning of the poison squad's second testing phase (using salicylic acid) in September of 1903, Brown quotes Dr. Wiley at length about a theory the scientist picked up while on vacation in London. "The human race is becoming hairless and toothless as the result of increased intellectuality and the prevalence of 'ready-chewed' health foods," explained Brown, and "[Wiley] declares the day is rapidly approaching when hair and teeth will become as extinct as the dodo bird." In Wiley's own words:
The loss of tail, hair, teeth -- are all steps forward toward human perfection...Man's brain is growing, and takes nutriment from the hair, which falls out, and consequently is growing less abundant year by year. Now, you take a woman...Woman still has long hair, but that's because woman is still a savage. Notice how fond she is of gaudy colors. Her brain hasn't the capacity of a man's.37Brown makes reference again to this strange "hairless race" theory again in a later article that describes the disquiet surrounding the hiring of a female cook to replace Chef Perry, who had gone on to prepare food for the Sixth Battalion of the National Guard. "What does a woman know about cooking," one of Dr. Wiley's assistants is quoted as saying. "A women can potter around a domestic hearth, but when it comes to frying eggs in a scientific mode and putting formaldehyde in the soup -- never."38
Wiley's impassioned advocacy of the hairless race theory and his contempt for the culinary talents of the "gentle gender" are, sadly, only two of the many illustrations of the doctor's consistently articulated anti-female sentiments. As Lorine Goodwin has noted in her recent book The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders 1879-1914, Wiley continually minimized the contributions of women's groups in the battle for pure food, so as to perpetuate his reputation as the "father of pure food and drugs" after 1906. Moreover, he often bristled at the "suggestion that he had espoused a 'women's issue'." Wiley also published several dismaying examples of "satiric verse" that explicitly lampooned women reformers, poems "which women who were trying to establish dignity in their professions and working for pure food, drink, and drugs found more offensive than clever."39
Although it is probably well within the intellectual mean of a decade that, however "progressive," still excluded women from the franchise, this ill-concealed misogyny of Wiley and his colleagues behooves us to reexamine their humanism in other matters, first and foremost their commitment to preserving the safety of their volunteers. For his part, Wiley declares in his autobiography that he "allowed no experiment to be carried to the point of danger to [boarders'] health."40 Nevertheless, Wiley's autobiographical assertion flies in the face of remarks he made to George Brown in the summer of 1903, when he declared that "[a]t times, the dose has been as large as the men could stand."41
Indeed, the whole experiment seems to have been predicated on these men endangering their personal health for the good of the public health. Were it not for the stomach pains, discomfort, and "dull and stubborn headaches" suffered by the volunteers, Wiley could never have come to the conclusion, stated in his 1904 final report, that "both boric acid and borax...created disturbances of appetite, of digestion, and of health" and thus should be banned as food preservatives.42 Not for nothing did Wiley lose over half his volunteer poison squad to defection in the first year of testing.
Moreover, given the many other potentially harmful preservatives tested upon subsequent iterations of the poison squad after the first year, including "salicylic acid and salicylates, sulfurous acids and sulfites, benzoic acids and benzoates, [and] formaldehyde," one historian argues that borax, with its attendant headaches and stomach cramps, "came to seem, by comparison, mild."43
When one considers the experimental expansions mulled over by Dr. Wiley and his crew during its first year, the poison squad research begins to sound even less like a noble chapter in public health history, executed by progressive scientists and strapping young volunteers for the good of humankind, and more like a grim prelude to darker public health episodes to come, including the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments. For one, using a scientific chronology that now not only seems entirely backward but positively pernicious, Wiley began testing borax on animals three months after the human trials began.44 Even more chilling, however, is the desire by Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson, Dr. Wiley's immediate superior, to expand the poison squad program to include infants and invalids, so that the effects of borax on the "weak and sickly" could be monitored firsthand. To his credit, Dr. Wiley, as described by Brown, does not seem to view "the prospect of prescribing acids to a miscellaneous conscription of babies...with any degree of equanimity."45 Nevertheless, one gets the sense from reading the article that Wiley's conscience could be inspired to poison babies and invalids with borax too if he just thought there was enough scientific value to be gleaned from doing so. "It would make the test more complete, of course," muses Wiley in the article, "and, while all experimental work is troublesome, experiments with babies and persons in bad health would not be more so. As for obtaining the subjects, that wouldn't be hard. We could get the babies from infant asylums and foundling hospitals, and there are plenty of invalids."46
This ultimate primacy of progressive scientific achievement over individual human liberty in Wiley's worldview is ominously reinforced further by a throwaway comment in his final report on borax, in which he states, "For the most part, such investigations [such as the poison squad] are carried out upon volunteers, since no one could be forced to undergo any such experimental treatment except as a punishment for crime."47 Wiley never got his hands on any criminals to include in his experiments, but the offhand remark makes one wonder what might have happened if he had.
Along with his near-religious faith in the importance of scientific progress, his heavy reliance upon the technocratic jargon of expertise in his reports, and his condescension, if not outright contempt, for women reformers, Wiley's conviction that community benefit ultimately trumps individual rights, implicit in his poisoning of human subjects and explicit in the remarks above, illustrates the extent to which Wiley was an exemplar of his age. In sum, he clearly embodied many of the strengths and weaknesses -- biases in favor of community, technocracy, masculinity -- commonly associated with the progressive worldview. But, if there was one element of the progressive agenda that Wiley the scientist and public health advocate did not yet seem to fully understand in 1904, it was the crucial importance of marshalling public opinion to one's cause. Although he had made considerable strides in this regard in his relationship with George Rothwell Brown and the rest of the media covering the poison squad, this was a lesson Wiley would come to learn best from his unwitting colleagues in the pure food fight, Upton Sinclair and Theodore Roosevelt.
Return to Part I.
5. "Microbes That Help -- They Stand as Guardians of the Public Health," Washington Post, May 10, 1903, 2 (editorial section).
6. Wiley,Autobiography, 157-158. Wiley recalls the time he was called before the trustees of Purdue. While "we have been greatly pleased with the excellence of his instruction and are pleased with the popularity he enjoys among his pupils," noted the board, "we are deeply grieved at his conduct. He has put on a uniform and played baseball with the boys, much to the discredit of the dignity of a professor. But the most grave offense of all has lately come to our attention. Professor Wiley has bought a bicycle. Imagine my feelings and those of other members of the board on seeing one of our professors dressed up like a monkey and astride a cartwheel riding along our streets." It's a pity Dr. Wiley didn't stay with the bicycle, for he ironically and inadvertently became a harbinger of an even more grievous public health epidemic -- Wiley was the second automobile owner in Washington DC and the first to have a serious automobile accident. Wiley, Autobiography, 279.
7. Wiley, Autobiography, 215.
8. Wiley, Autobiography, 216. The act of Congress also granted Wiley $5000 in funding.
9. "Dr. Wiley's Boarders -- They will be Fed on Alleged Unwholesome Foods," Washington Post, November 21, 1902, 2.
10. Ibid. Wiley, Autobiography, 218.
11. Young, James Harvey, Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906, Princeton University Press (Princeton: 1989), 153.
14. Young, 154.
16. Wiley, Harvey W., Influence of Food Preservatives and Artificial Colors on Digestion and Health: Vol. 1 Boric Acid and Borax, Government Printing Office (Washington: 1904), 11, 44-48.
17. Wiley, Autobiography, 216.
18. Ibid. The logic was that if these strapping young men became ill as a result of the additives, "the deduction would naturally follow that children and older persons, more susceptible than they, would be greater sufferers from similar causes."
19. "Borax Ration Scant -- Official Chef Falls Into Disfavor with Guests," Washington Post, December 23. 1902, 2.
20. Young, 156.
21. "Dr. Wiley in Despair -- One Boarder Becomes Too Fat and Another Too Lean," Washington Post, December 16, 1902, 2. Fortunately for the march of human science, the two boarders of inconstant mass had within a week seen "the folly of changing weight at a time when the machinery of government was being blocked by the indiscretion." "Wiley adds the Borax -- Boarders Come to Weight and Real Test Begins," Washington Post, December 21, 1902.
22. "Borax Ration Scant." Quips Brown, "Just what scientific data Dr. Wiley will get from the effects of the South American Drug can only be guessed at."
23. "Borax Begins to Tell -- At Least the Six Eaters Are All Losing Flesh," Washington Post, December 26, 1902.
26. "Borax Ration Scant," Post. "Host Wiley is Away -- Meantime Borax Diet Develops Thin Boarder No. 2," Washington Post, December 25, 1902. Perry, 156.
27. "Gag for the Boarders -- Taken to Task for Divulging State Secrets," Washington Post, December 27, 1902.
28. "Last Word on Borax -- Babbling Boarders Silenced by Threat of Dismissal," Washington Post, December 30, 1902.
29. Ibid. My italics.
30. Wiley, Autobiography, 217-218. "Wiley Branches Out -- Four-footed Subjects to Be Fed Borax, et Cetera," Washington Post, January 7, 1903, 2.
31. Young, 157. "They'll Never Look the Same - Sung by Lew Dockstader in His Minstrel Company, Washington, D. C., week of October 4, 1903," in Wiley, Autobiography, 219-220.
32. "Boarders Turn Pink -- Peculiar Effect of Food Served to Dr. Wiley's Guests," Washington Post, April 12, 1903, 2.
33. "Cold Storage Tests -- Dr. Wiley Organizing a New Investigation," Washington Post, June 25, 1904, 2. "Many humorous stories were printed regarding the squad of 'poison eaters,'" reads the article, "and one paper [in fact, this one paper] published an article saying that the experiments had shown that the use of certain chemicals in food produced beautiful pink cheeks. Dr. Wiley says that after this story, which, by the way, had no foundation in fact, appeared, he received fully 2000 letters from women all over the world begging him for his recipe."
34. Poison Eaters Glad -- Two Month Vacation for Dr. Wiley's Boarders," Washington Post, June 10, 1903, 5. For his part, Dr. Wiley is quoted as saying, "[I]t is against my rule to say anything."
35. "Lent at Dr. Wiley's -- The Boarders Set Up a Yell Against Eating Meat," Washington Post, March 25, 1903, 2. This time, Wiley says, "The rule is that no more information shall be given out here, and I must keep the rule. I can't say whether we are or are not observing Lent."
36. Young, 156.
37. "Wine on Wiley Menu -- Liquid Diet for New Class of Poison Tasters," Washington Post, September 17, 1903, 2. Dr. Wiley makes no mention of this bizarre theory in his autobiography -- hopefully, he had grown out of it.
38. "Wiley Closes Doors -- Three Months' Vacation for Poison-Eating Class," Washington Post, July 1, 1903, 2. "Woman Poison Cook -- Consternation at Dr. Wiley's Boarding-House," Washington Post, October 4, 1903, 10. Sadly, no explanation is given of how to fry eggs scientifically.
39. Goodwin, Lorine Swainston, The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders 1879-1914, McFarland & Company (Jefferson: 1999), 224-225.
40. Wiley, Autobiography, 219.
41. "Wiley Closes Doors," Post.
42. Goodwin, 221. Wiley, Influence of Food Preservatives, 255.
43. Young, 155.
44. "Wiley Branches Out," Post. Brown's trademark levity is once again evinced all over this article, particularly when he notes that the "four-footed guests of Dr. Wiley's hostelry" will "take their meals at separate tables" from the human boarders, and when he notes that it "is understood that [the animals] will not be intrusted [sic] with the duty of taking their own temperatures and recording data concerning the speed of their pulses, but that this work will be done by Dr. Wiley's assistants."
45. "Baby Class in Borax -- Grown-Up Invalids Also to Test Dr. Wiley's Fare," Washington Post, January 11, 1903, 2.
47. Wiley, Influence of Food Preservatives, 9-10. My italics.