The Poison Squad: A Group Of Brave Men Who Risked Death For Science

You've probably never heard of them, but we all owe them a great deal...

The poison squad
The Poison Squad and creator Wiley... Image FDA History/ Flickr

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in the United States is the overseer of every pharmaceutical drug on the market – but it wasn’t always that way.

Once upon a time at the turn of the century, twelve young men sat around a table, ingesting deadly poisons for the greater good.

Called the “Poison Squad” these chaps were tasked with eating mouthfuls of food laced with toxic substances like formaldehyde, chalk, salicylic acid, Borax tablets, and benzoate.

They became so renowned for facing possible death so regularly that these “martyrs of science” were bestowed with a motto – “Only the Brave Dare Eat The Fare.”

Additionally, poet S.W. Gillian wrote a little ditty in their honour. 

It reads: “On prussic acid, we break out fast. We lunch on morphine stew. We dine with a matchhead consummé. Drink carbolic acid brew.”

Harvey Wiley
Harvey Wiley in his lab/FDA Image Flickr

Yikes. The creator of this group was chief chemist Harvey Wiley of the Bureau of Chemistry who was inspired after observing the public consuming unregulated and risky foods.

Back then, beer was laced with strychnine to give it a bitter taste, and this additive in large doses can cause muscular convulsions and eventually death through asphyxia.

Eventually, as the food industry grew and factories became a common feature in food production, alternatives were being used to replace strychnine, namely preservatives like formaldehyde and salicylic acid. All untested and unnoticed by the US government. Wiley decided to put a stop to this.

He advertised for twelve young men to board free of charge in the building containing his laboratory and eat his food. Many struggling students leaped at the chance to make some extra cash along with room and board. He gained a £3,880 grant from the government and hired a chef to make meals for the group every day.

The Poison Squad
The Poison Squad/FDA

Each participant faced rigorous tests. “Their weight, temperature, and pulse were recorded before the meal; stool and urine samples were tested, and cases of sickness and nausea were recorded. Women were not allowed to join,” states Atlas Obscura.

As the years went by the test subjects became sicker, and as new volunteers left more took their place. All men showed signs of decline and were observed to be on a “slow approach toward death.”

Symptoms they experienced included nausea, anorexia, vomiting, gastric inflammation and a dull, persistent headache.

One man even died. Robert Vance Freeman passed away after expulsion from the squad for being “disabled” due to poisoning.

Not long after, he died from tuberculosis and his mother brought legal action against Wiley. She also claimed that he was underage when he signed up.

The Poison Squad
The Poison Squad Chef and technician William S. Carter/FDA

The squad was disbanded in 1907, but it prompted the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 which prevented the “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs or medicines, and liquors.”

The rest is history, and now that US food products are prevalent throughout the world, we have to give thanks to the courageous Poison Squad because, without them, the most common of foods could be incredibly dangerous.

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