The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

by Deborah Blum


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A New York Times Notable Book 

From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times-bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change

By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. "Milk" might contain formaldehyde, most often used to embalm corpses. Decaying meat was preserved with both salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical, and borax, a compound first identified as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry, and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by "embalmed milk" every year. Citizens—activists, journalists, scientists, and women's groups—began agitating for change. But even as protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then, in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the agriculture department, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, "The Poison Squad."

Over the next thirty years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning indefatigably for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair, whose fiction revealed the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry J. Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land, as "Dr. Wiley's Law."

Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying "David and Goliath" tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143111122
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/24/2019
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 65,330
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Deborah Blum is director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, and editor of Undark magazine, ( In 1992, she won the Pulitzer Prize for a series on primate research, which she turned into a book, The Monkey Wars. Her other books include The Poisoner's HandbookGhost HuntersLove at Goon Park, and Sex on the Brain. She has written for publications including The New York TimesWiredTimeDiscoverMother JonesThe Guardian and The Boston Globe. Blum is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a lifetime associate of the National Academy of Sciences.

Table of Contents

"I Wonder What's in It" xi

Cast of Characters xiii

Introduction 1

Part I

1 A Chemical Wilderness 11

2 Cheated, Fooled, and Bamboozled 29

3 The Beef Court 47

4 What's In It? 65

5 Only the Brave 80

6 Lessons in Food Poisoning 98

7 The Yellow Chemist 119

8 The Jungle 137

Part II

9 The Poison Trust 155

10 Of Ketchup and Corn Syrup 177

11 Excuses for Everything 191

12 Of Whiskey and Soda 208

13 The Love Microbe 227

14 The Adulteration Snake 251

15 The History of a Crime 266

Epilogue 287

Gratitudes 293

Notes 295

Photo credits 320

Index 321

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The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
litpixie More than 1 year ago
Wow! My family worried about me reading this book because I might decide that I won't eat anything. I had to remind them that I was reading about events from 100 years ago. The fight for pure food and medicine is a more drawn out fight than I learned in high school. I learned that after publication of The Jungle that the FDA was created. New, weak laws were enacted, but it took years of fighting to get our food, drink and medicine pure, read safe. I recommend this book strongly. We all need to know about Harvey Washington Wiley and the young civil servants who volunteered for the poison squads. I won a copy of this book through Goodreads.