Pure Food, the Press, and the Poison Squad:

Evaluating Coverage of
Harvey W. Wiley's Hygienic Table

[Page 3]

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

Part I.
Part II.
Part III.

Examining the increase in pure food interest after the hygienic table experiments, it is clear that Harvey Wiley deserves at least some claim to his oft-cited title as the "Father of Pure Food." After the publication of George Brown's initial articles in 1902, there seems to be much more of a focus in the Post on pure food matters, from increased attention to pure milk legislation to published debates on the constitutionality of a federal food law to more advertisements for food and beverage products that tout their purity, such as the Royal Baking Powder ad which proclaims that it "makes the food more digestible and wholesome...[a] peculiarity [that] has been noted by physicians...[who] accordingly endorse and recommend it."48 In addition, after the poison squad became a household term in 1903 and Wiley had submitted his final borax report in 1904, congressional legislation in support of pure food regulation came closer than passage than ever before -- twice a prototype of the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in the House, only to die both times in committee through the machinations of a few Senators still fervently committed to states rights.49 As Wiley put it, "[p]ure food bills in the Senate had been regularly committed to the Committee on Manufactures, much as an infant would be left to starve in a barren room."50

Yet, although Wiley's work with the poison squad had created considerable momentum for the pure food movement, it would take one more public relations push to complete the task of procuring successful regulatory legislation. Indeed, despite Wiley's almost fanatical attempts to enthrone and preserve the science behind the poison squad experiments from the degradation of George Rothwell Brown's acerbic pen, the final, victorious campaign in the battle for pure food was instigated not by a grim scientist at all, but by a former joke writer. Despite the many contributions of scientific endeavor to the pure food battle, in the end it was a socialist endeavor -- and a work of literature rather than of science -- that finally yielded the necessary public impetus to ensure the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

This work, as most every college history student in America knows, was The Jungle -- Upton Sinclair's celebrated 1906 expose of the Chicago meat-packing industry. As with the popularity of the poison squad, the public furor and revulsion over tainted meat that resulted from The Jungle's nauseating narrative of vermin-infested slaughterhouses, tubercular meats, and careless inspectors didn't really play out at all in the manner Sinclair desired. Intending to incite a socialist revolution over the means of production, Sinclair instead ended up igniting a progressive inquiry into food consumption. As he himself famously put it, "I aimed at the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach."51

Nevertheless, deeply disconcerted by these stomach-churning horrors of The Jungle, the American people -- and their representatives in Congress -- were ready as never before to address the need for pure food legislation. And it was the subsequent Sinclair-inspired crusade against the "Meat Trust" by that master of the bully pulpit and inventor of the photo op, President Theodore Roosevelt (who, although he generally detested muckrakers -- indeed, he coined the term -- was never one to be on the wrong side of a public relations spectacle52), that ultimately sealed the passage of the Meat Inspection Act -- followed immediately by the Pure Food and Drug Act, a vote that passed by overwhelming margins -- in June of 1906.53

At a hearing before the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce just before the passage of the Act, Harvey Wiley remarked of his poison squad study, "You can not always rely upon newspaper accounts of scientific investigations."54 Perhaps not, but, as Wiley's own experience in first rejecting and then embracing the media attests, the converse is also true --neither could scientific investigations on matters of public health remain completely divorced any longer from the interests and aspirations of the public. The progressive confidence in an elite class of technocrats that could craft public policy for the good of the community without necessarily consulting the citizenry was no longer viable in its old form. As PR-savvy politicians like Teddy Roosevelt and public relations pioneers like Edward Bernays would make evident in the decade or so following Wiley's poison squad experiments, public advocates, and particularly public health advocates who purport to speak for the good of all, must henceforth rely on some kind of explicit media strategy to shape the reception of policy and achieve reform. Although Dr. Wiley may have been a pioneer in the field of human experimentation, his failure to appreciate the necessity of engaging the public mind in this fashion illustrates how little he ultimately understood his subjects.

Return to Part I.

Return to Part II.

48. "Fight for Pure Milk," Washington Post, May 13, 1903, 12. "Pure Milk in Bottles," Washington Post, May 22, 1903, 12. "Season of Milk Peril," Washington Post, June 18, 1903, 2. "Pure Milk Movement," Washington Post, July 3, 1903, 12. Royal Baking Powder Ad, Washington Post, November 12, 1903, 9. In a marketing strategy that persists today, breweries seemed to latch on to the "purity" crusade much more readily than other industries, from Pabst Blue Ribbon declaring "Perhaps you are in need of a beer which is healthful and pure" to Schlitz quoting a Doctor's reasons for drinking "the beer that made Milwaukee famous" -- "Impurity means bacilli; and in a saccharine product like beer bacilli multiply rapidly. I do not recommend beer that may contain them." Pabst ad, Washington Post, July 22, 1903, 9. Schlitz Ad, July 25, 1903, 9.
49. Young, 157.
50. Wiley, 224.
51. Elliot, Emory, "Afterword," in Sinclair, Upton, The Jungle, Penguin Books (New York: 1906), 342.
52. Elliot, 343.
53. Even given the fact that Sinclair's book created a media maelstrom, the difference in press coverage devoted to the two acts is striking. For over a week, the lead story -- and the lead political cartoon -- in the Washington Post centered on TR's fight against the meat trust, namely the question of who would end up paying the cost of stringent new meat inspections. Conversely, the only mention of the Pure Food and Drug act is that it passed with virtually no opposition -- only 17 house members voted against the bill. Washington Post, June 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 1903, 1.
54. Wiley, Harvey W., History of a Crime Against the Food Law, (Washington: 1929).

Main Page/Family/Links/Gallery/Biography/Soapbox/Resume/Writings/Weblog