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Meet the “father of the FDA,” a fearless crusader for food safety
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Meet the “father of the FDA,” a fearless crusader for food safety

by Ctrl,Alt,Delete BotNovember 26, 2018

Enlarge / Members of Harvey Washington Wiley’s “poison squad” voluntarily dined on borax and formaldehyde to test the safety of these once-common food preservatives. (credit: FDA/Public domain)

As you gathered to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday last week—avoiding romaine lettuce potentially contaminated by E. coli—we hope you remembered to give thanks for the landmark 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, it was the first regulatory law to enforce food safety standards in America, along with the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

It was known as “Dr. Wiley’s Law,” in honor of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who served as chief chemist of the US agriculture department at the time and proved a tireless crusader for consumer protection. He even recruited several of his young male employees to ingest common chemical food additives to test their safety, dubbed the “Poison Squad.” The story of his decades-long fight is the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum’s fascinating new book, The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.

Blum has a soft spot for stories about scientists who challenged the status quo—people who were also complicated, obsessive, and difficult personalities. “I’m not sure you can change the world unless you’re all of those things,” she says. Her first book, Love at Goon Park (2002), focused on psychologist Harry Harlow, who studied the effects of neglect on primates in his lab and went on to revolutionize how we think about the value of love and affection. Ghost Hunters (2007) explored William James’ quest to find scientific proof of life after death in the late 19th century.

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