Podcast Episode 214: The Poison Squad

wiley and the poison squad

In 1902, chemist Harvey Wiley launched a unique experiment to test the safety of food additives. He recruited a group of young men and fed them meals laced with chemicals to see what the effects might be. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Wiley’s “poison squad” and his lifelong crusade for food safety.

We’ll also follow some garden paths and puzzle over some unwelcome weight-loss news.


In 1887, an inadvertent dot in a telegram cost wool dealer Frank Primrose $20,000.

For 25 years, two Minnesota brothers-in-law exchanged a weaponized pair of moleskin pants.

the poison squad

Harvey Washington Wiley’s poison squad dined in formal clothing and wrote their own inspirational slogan. Sources for our feature:

Bernard A. Weisberger, “Doctor Wiley and His Poison Squad,” American Heritage 47:1 (February/March 1996).

Oscar E. Anderson Jr., The Health of a Nation: Harvey W. Wiley and the Fight for Pure Food, 1958.

Paul M. Wax, “Elixirs, Diluents, and the Passage of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act,” Annals of Internal Medicine 122:6 (March 15, 1995), 456-461.

James Harvey Young, “Food and Drug Regulation Under the USDA, 1906-1940,” Agricultural History 64:2 (Spring 1990), 134-142.

Cornelius C. Regier, “The Struggle for Federal Food and Drugs Legislation,” Law and Contemporary Problems 1:1 (December 1933), 3-15.

Donna J. Wood, “The Strategic Use of Public Policy: Business Support for the 1906 Food and Drug Act,” Business History Review 59:3 (Autumn 1985), 403-432.

E. Pendleton Herring, “The Balance of Social Forces in the Administration of the Pure Food and Drug Act,” Social Forces 13:3 (March 1935), 358-366.

Carol Lewis and Suzanne White Junod, “The ‘Poison Squad’ and the Advent of Food and Drug Regulation,” FDA Consumer 36:6 (November-December 2002), 12-15.

Mike Oppenheim, “Food Fight,” American History 53:4 (October 2018), 68.

Bette Hileman, “‘Poison Squads’ Tested Chemical Preservatives,” Chemical & Engineering News 84:38 (Sept. 18, 2006).

Wallace F. Janssen, “The Story of the Laws Behind the Labels,” FDA Consumer 15:5 (June 1981), 32-45.

G.R. List, “Giants From the Past: Harvey W. Wiley (1844-1930),” Inform 16:2 (February 2005), 111-112.

Bruce Watson, “The Poison Squad: An Incredible History,” Esquire, June 27, 2013.

Deborah Blum, “Bring Back the Poison Squad,” Slate, March 2, 2011.

Lance Gay, “A Century Ago, the Federal Government Launched One of Its Most Unusual and Controversial Investigations,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 30, 2002, A-8.

“Harvey W. Wiley: Pioneer Consumer Activist,” FDA Consumer 40:1, (January-February 2006), 34-35.

“Harvey Washington Wiley,” Science History Institute, Jan. 10, 2018.

Karen Olsson, “We Must Eat, Drink and (Still) Be Wary,” Washington Post, Sept. 6, 1998, C01.

O.K. Davis, “The Case of Dr. Wiley,” Hampton Columbian Magazine 27:4 (October 1911), 469-481.

A.A. Langdon, “Food Expert Defends Borax,” What-to-Eat 22:3 (March 1907), 91-92.

“To Investigate Wiley’s Food Squad Methods,” National Provisioner 36:2 (Jan. 12, 1907), 1.

“Letter Box,” Pharmaceutical Era 37:22 (May 30, 1907), 514.

“The Case of Dr. Wiley,” American Food Journal 4:2, Feb. 15, 1909, 16.

“Food Law’s Anniversary,” New York Times, June 30, 1908.

“Wiley’s Foes Think They’ve Beaten Him,” New York Times, Dec. 29, 1908.

H.H. Langdon, “Why Wiley Is Criticised; His Radical Views Said to Justify Tests by the National Commission,” New York Times, April 7, 1907.

“Benzoate Indorsed; Wiley Loses Fight,” New York Times, Aug. 27, 1909.

“Health Rather Than Money,” New York Times, Aug. 21, 1910.

“Germans Verified Wiley Poison Tests,” New York Times, Aug. 19, 1911.

“Forbidden Fruit,” New York Times, Oct. 11, 1911.

“Pure Food in One State Is Poison in Another,” New York Times, Jan. 25, 1914.

“Dr. H.W. Wiley Dies, Pure-Food Expert,” New York Times, July 1, 1930.

Listener mail:

spring-heeled jack porter

Listener Rob Emich discovered Spring-Heeled Jack London-Style Porter in Cape Cod last month (see Episode 34).

Brittany Hope Flamik, “Australia’s Endangered Quolls Get Genetic Boost From Scientists,” New York Times, July 26, 2018.

April Reese, “Ecologists Try to Speed Up Evolution to Save Australian Marsupial From Toxic Toads,” Nature, July 23, 2018.

Jesse Thompson and Liz Trevaskis, “Questions Over Quarantined Astell Island Quolls Who Lost Their Fear of Predators,” ABC Radio Darwin, Aug. 9, 2018.

Wikipedia, “Garden-Path Sentence” (accessed Aug. 17, 2018).

“Garden Path Sentences,” Fun With Words (accessed Aug. 17, 2018).

BBC Sound Effects.

Dave Lawrence, “RNN of BBC Sound Effects,” Aardvark Zythum, Aug. 2, 2018.

Dave Lawrence, “More Sound Effects,” Aardvark Zythum, Aug. 3, 2018.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener David Palmer.

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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!