Poison Squad: The Men Who Ate Poison So You Don’t Have To

A group of young men volunteered to eat poison for dinner. All in the name of science.

The press dubbed them the Poison Squad, but the man in charge—Dr. Harvey Wiley—called the experiment the “hygienic table trials.” The trials, which lasted from 1902 to 1907, were part of Wiley’s crusade to prove that common chemical preservatives then in use were not fit for human consumption.

More than 100 years later, the preservatives in our food are once again a hot topic. Many food packages now declare they are preservative-free to boost sales, and an internet search for the question “Are food preservatives bad for you?” returns more than 2.5 million results.

Is there anything we can learn from Harvey Wiley and the Poison Squad?

Dr. Wiley’s Crusade
At the time of the table trials, Wiley was chief chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One of his passions was pushing for federal regulation of food “adulteration”—in other words, he wanted to stop food manufacturers from adding potentially dangerous substances to food and misleading consumers about ingredients.

In 1902, Wiley received money from Congress to study the effects of chemical food preservatives on humans. For the next five years, Wiley conducted experiments in which he fed groups of young men common food preservatives of the day—like borax, salicylic acid, copper sulfate, and formaldehyde.

Fully informed of what they were getting into, the volunteers received three square meals a day—in exchange for eating doses of the preservatives along with their meals. Throughout the experiment, their vital signs were recorded, and urine and stool samples were collected and analyzed.

Careful notes were taken about any symptoms the men developed. Borax, for instance, was found to cause headaches and stomach aches, while the formaldehyde test had to be ended early because the men got too sick.

The Public Joins the Cause
The press eventually caught wind of these experiments, and the so-called Poison Squad became a national sensation. Article after article appeared in newspapers around the country, generally praising the efforts of Dr. Wiley and his volunteers. “The food consumers of America owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Wiley’s ‘poison squad,’” read one such article in the Salt Lake Telegram in 1903. “Congress should give every one of them a gold medal.”

Ad for Ceylon and India Tea (from the New York Tribune)

Ad for Ceylon and India Tea (from the New York Tribune)

The high visibility of Dr. Wiley’s preservative experiment increased public awareness of food safety, an issue that women’s groups had long been championing. Because of this growing awareness, some food and beverage companies began advertising their products as being free of risky substances. A 1902 ad for Ceylon and India tea, for instance, boasted the product was “not mixed with adulterants or coloring matter”—a shift from just two years prior, when that product’s ad made no reference to food safety.

Although Dr. Wiley’s methods seem somewhat suspect today, his experiments paid off. His findings from the Poison Squad ultimately enabled him to work alongside other activists to push through the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act—the nation’s first real federal food regulation law.

The Debate Lives On
Today’s debate about food preservatives revolves around some of the same issues as in Dr. Wiley’s day. One side emphasizes preservatives’ role in prolonging the shelf life of food and making it cheaper and more accessible, while the other criticizes chemical preservatives for their potential dangers. It’s a complicated issue.

But if there is one thing either side can learn from Dr. Wiley’s story, it’s the power that passionate and persistent individuals have to shape the national conversation on food safety. Just without a Poison Squad this time.

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The Gloves Are Off: What Happens When Two Powerful World Leaders Go Head-to-Head?

Two opposing world leaders agreed to meet against a backdrop of heightened nuclear tensions and belligerent rhetoric. No, it’s not President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. We’re talking about Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev.

East Meets West
At the time, the arms and space race between the U.S. and Soviet Union was in full swing, and Cold War tensions were high. But the two nations agreed in late 1958 to hold cultural exhibitions in each other’s countries. Before the American exhibition officially opened in Moscow in July 1959, Vice President Nixon traveled to Russia to act as host to Khrushchev as the Soviet premier toured the exhibits.

Khrushchev and Nixon talk in a model kitchen at the American exhibition in Moscow (via the Lincoln Journal Star)

Khrushchev and Nixon talk in a model kitchen at the American exhibition in Moscow (via the Lincoln Journal Star)

The two men’s informal discussions that day are collectively known as the Kitchen Debate, since (as the Daily News put it) “their battleground was the narrow space between the stove and the washing machine in a model American kitchen.” Though their conversations touched on topics like modern appliances, the affordability of housing, and the exchange of ideas between the two nations, the real subject was capitalism versus communism—and their discussions sometimes grew quite heated.

The Kitchen Debate
When Nixon bragged that the model house they were looking at cost $14,000—a price tag he claimed was affordable for most American World War II veterans—Khrushchev replied that American houses were built to only last 20 years, while Soviet houses were built to last for generations. When Khrushchev boasted that everyone was guaranteed housing in Russia, Nixon shot back that America had diversity and choice.

Following their exchange in the model kitchen, Nixon and Khrushchev moved to a TV studio demonstrating new color television technology. There, Nixon suggested that advancing technology would increase the possibility of communication between the nations, facilitating learning on both sides. “Because after all,” he could not resist adding, “you don’t know everything.” To which Khrushchev replied, “If I don’t know everything, then you know absolutely nothing about Communism, except for fear!”1

The American Public’s Reaction
When news of the exchange hit U.S. newspapers, the American public—for the most part—applauded Nixon for standing up to the famously bellicose Khrushchev. An AP article carried by the Lincoln Journal Star reported that “Nixon stood toe-to-toe with Khrushchev batting back his arguments one by one.” The Belleville Telescope admiringly wrote that the meeting between Nixon and Khrushchev “developed into a world-shaking bluff and bluster in which the Russian Premier came out second best.”

Nixon called a "secret weapon in the cold war" (via the Chicago Tribune)

Nixon called a “secret weapon in the cold war” (via the Chicago Tribune)

And when, a few days later, the video of the conversation was aired on American TV, Nixon gained further popularity. An editorial in the Evening Sun, written in the weeks after the Kitchen Debate, lavished praise on Nixon, saying “In every assignment he has drawn, he has turned in a distinguished performance. He is the despair of opponents who wait for him to stumble so they can push him out of sight.” (Of course, Nixon would later stumble—quite spectacularly.)

Questions for Today
But while the gloves may have come off during the Kitchen Debate, it did little to actually resolve any of the problems of the Cold War. The showmanship between the two leaders resulted in little besides popularity and propaganda within their respective countries.

However, the Kitchen Debate does spark some questions about the potential meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. If Trump is seen as standing up to Kim Jong Un, will he get a similar boost in domestic popularity as Nixon did? And will the meeting between Trump and Kim have any lasting effect on relations between the two countries? Or, like the Kitchen Debate, will it be a temporary blip on newspaper front pages?

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1. The Kitchen Debate – Transcript. Cia.gov. 24 July 1959.

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“I Could Not Do Without it”: Things You Didn’t Know about America’s Struggle with Opioids

“You see the drug was so deceptive that while under its influence I could work and be free from pain, so instead of laying up and letting Nature do her work and cure me, I kept taking the injections until the pain would grow worse when I was completely from under the influence. […] The first thing I knew I could not do without it. I was compelled to take it night and morning to be at all comfortable. Then as I used it, I was not content to simply have enough to keep me free from pain. But like that fire, when once kindled, it grew in force and strength.”

These are the vivid words of a man struggling with opioid addiction. However, they don’t come from the pages of a modern newspaper. They come from an 1878 issue of the Chicago Tribune.

Americans in the 1800s struggled with their own opioid crisis. An estimated 1 in 2001 people were addicted to opioids by the end of the 19th century, not that far off from the approximately 1 in 1542 Americans who were dependent on or addicted to opioids in 2016.

What were the causes of the 19th-century opioid crisis?
Over-prescription by doctors and easy access to opioids—remarkably similar to the causes of the modern epidemic.

19th-century woman buys morphine from a druggist. From the Philadelphia Times, 1899

19th-century woman buys morphine from a druggist. From the Philadelphia Times, 1899

In the 19th-century, opium-based patent medicines such as laudanum and paregoric were popular solutions to a wide-range of ills, from coughs, to aches and pains, to diarrhea, to the euphemistic “female complaints.” In fact, many of the opioid addicts during the late 19th-century were women, particularly white women of the middle and upper classes, who became addicted after being prescribed opium-based medicines by their physicians.

These opioid-saturated medicines were widely available, with ads for them appearing in newspapers around the nation. One such medicine, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, was geared toward young children and promised to not only soothe teething babies but also claimed it “corrects acidity of the stomach, relieves wind colic, regulates the bowels, and gives rest, health, and comfort to mother and child.” The fact that it was laced with opiates wasn’t mentioned.

The Civil War introduced a new demographic of opioid addicts: soldiers. Morphine, derived from opium, had been around since the early 1800s, but the introduction of the hypodermic syringe into mainstream medicine around the time of the Civil War made it possible for military doctors to easily treat wounded soldiers without the side effects of orally administered opioids.

When the soldiers returned home, some of them returned addicted to the morphine administered to them in hospitals, while others became addicted after the war as a way to treat the chronic pain resulting from war wounds.

So how was the 19th-century opioid epidemic resolved?
In the late 19th century, medical professionals began to realize the detrimental effects of opioids. “Who is responsible for […] morphine victims?” asked a doctor in an 1892 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He then answered his own question: “The physician and the druggist, most largely.”

The role of physicians and druggists in morphine addiction. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1892

The role of physicians and druggists in morphine addiction. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1892

As awareness of the dangers grew among doctors and pharmacists, opioids were prescribed less often and became less freely available, which helped lower the number of new addicts. This, combined with state and federal regulatory legislation, helped eventually end the epidemic.

Of course, just because the 19th century epidemic ended, it didn’t mean opioid abuse was completely eliminated. Abuse continued on a smaller scale, complicated by the introduction in the late 19th century of an opioid marketed as a safe alternative to morphine: heroin.

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1. Report of The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, 2017, p. 113.
2. Number calculated from data provided by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and the US Census Bureau for 2016.

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