The Men Who Volunteered to Be Poisoned by the Government

Harvey Washington Wiley, the brusque and determined leader of the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Chemistry in Washington, D.C., had good news and bad news for the 12 young men who had answered his call for volunteers. First, Wiley promised them three ample, freshly prepared meals every day for at least six months. Since the majority of the men were Department clerks living on modest wages, this was a tempting offer. The volunteers would also be under exceptional medical care, with weekly physicals and daily recordings of their weight, temperature, and pulse rate.

This was, Wiley explained, because he’d be slowly poisoning them.

Wiley’s staff would put borax in their butter, milk, or coffee. Formaldehyde would lurk in their meats, copper sulfate and saltpeter in their fruit pies. Wiley would begin at low doses and then ratchet up the amount until one or more of the men complained of debilitating symptoms, like vomiting or dizziness. Those people would then be excused from the program until they felt well enough to resume. In the event a subject died or became seriously ill, he would waive the right to pursue legal remedy against the government.

The year was 1902. With funding and consent from Congress, Wiley was about to embark on an experiment he dubbed the “hygienic table trials,” but it was the Washington news media that came up with the nickname that would stick: They called his volunteers "the Poison Squad."

The Poison Squad dining area. Image credit: FDA History Office [PDF] // Public Domain

At the turn of the last century, food manufacturers and distributors were untouched by government oversight. There were no federal requirements for labeling, which meant ingredients didn't need to be listed, and there were no explicit consequences for tampering or adulterating consumer goods. Parents would unwittingly give their babies cough syrup containing morphine to calm them down. Olive oil might actually be cottonseed oil, which was cheaper for makers to source; glucose could be passed off as honey.

A former professor of chemistry at Purdue University, Wiley was aghast at the freewheeling nature of the food industry. He was especially concerned with the use of preservatives, intended to ward off spoilage but poorly understood when consumed in consistent amounts over time. Taking a post as chief chemist at the Department of Agriculture in 1883, Wiley repeatedly petitioned for money and resources to quantify how these substances impacted the human body. Time and again, food lobbyists would thwart his attempts.

In 1902, Congress finally agreed to Wiley’s persistent requests, offering him $5000 to subsidize an experiment on the effects of food additives with a group of men who would spend at least six months, and eventually up to a year, in his service. In the basement of the Bureau’s Washington office, Wiley set up a kitchen, dining room, and lab; he installed a chef, known only as “Perry,” to prepare a variety of welcoming dishes for his volunteers. Roast chicken and braised beef would be served alongside borax and formaldehyde.

Although the ethics of the study could be debated both then and now, Wiley disclosed his intentions to the 12 men who signed up for the program. Mostly young, they were selected for having durable constitutions that might more easily withstand the accumulation of foreign chemicals. Wiley believed if the dosages bothered them, then children and older members of the public were in even more danger.

In exchange for free food and the sense of contributing to the betterment of society, the volunteers agreed to eat their three daily meals only in the test kitchen. No snacking between meals would be permitted, and only water could be ingested away from the table. Their weight, pulse, and temperature would be recorded before sitting down. Wiley also had each man carry a satchel with them at all times to collect urine and feces for laboratory analysis. “Every particle of their secreta,” Wiley said, was necessary to the trial.

The first treat was borax, a ground mineral commonly used to preserve meats and other perishables. Wiley allowed the men a period of 10 to 20 days of eating normally to establish baseline readings of their health and symptoms before Chef Perry began adding a half-gram of the powder to their butter. Although the men knew borax would be served, they didn’t know how—yet most all of them quickly began avoiding the butter out of instinct once they had gotten a taste of it.

Wiley next tried slipping it into their milk, but the same thing happened: They stopped drinking the milk. Having failed to account for the body’s natural resistance to being contaminated with the metallic-tasting substance, he began offering borax-filled capsules with each meal. The men dutifully swallowed them as a kind of dessert following the main course.

Wiley’s squad tolerated the borax—7.5 grains daily—for several weeks. But after a few months, headaches, stomach aches, and depression began to materialize. At six months, they threatened to go on strike unless the slow drip of poison stopped. The summer months seemed to exacerbate their ailments.

By then, Wiley had gotten enough data on borax. He moved on to salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate, and other additives, administering each one at a time, all across the menu, to assess the response. Sometimes, the progression was so uneventful that the men took it upon themselves to liven up the proceedings. One laced a colleague’s drink with quinine, which can cause headaches and profuse sweating. Not long after, the man went out on a date; he later recounted that when he began to feel the symptoms of the quinine, he "went home prepared to die in the interest of science." (He was fine.)

Other times, the experiments were as dangerous as advertised. Owing to excruciating symptoms, the trial with formaldehyde was terminated early.

A sign posted in the Poison Squad's dining room. Image credit: FDA via Flickr // U.S. Government Works

Rotating members of the Poison Squad convened for roughly five years between 1902 and 1907. All along, lobbyists fought to suppress Wiley’s findings. His 477-page report on the effects of borax was well-received, but supervisors—and even the Secretary of Agriculture—tried to stifle his review of benzoic acid, a widely used preservative, due to its damaging findings and subsequent pestering by food lobbyists. The report was leaked only when the Secretary was away on vacation and a staffer misunderstood his instructions, ordering it printed by mistake.

In 1906, Congress passed both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, both designed to restrict the kinds of preservatives and additives used by food companies. The former was known as the “Wiley Act,” because Wiley had been the one to demonstrate the need for its inception. They were the first federal laws to regulate food. By the 1930s, Wiley's Bureau of Chemistry had morphed into the Food and Drug Administration—and almost all of the additives Wiley trialed had been excised from the commercial food industry.

Wiley himself remained with the Department of Agriculture until 1912, when he began a 19-year position as a consumer advocate for Good Housekeeping magazine. The public, which had come to know Wiley through the extensive media coverage of the Poison Squad, looked upon him as a reliable source for information.

In 1927, Wiley used his position to notify readers of a toxic substance that was widespread, commonly absorbed, and had underestimated potential to cause cancer. The American public, he warned, should be very wary of tobacco. While Good Housekeeping stopped accepting cigarette ads in 1952, the Surgeon General didn't issue a formal warning until 1964.

Meanwhile, the dozens of men who consented to the regulated poisonings were said to have suffered no lasting effects, save perhaps for one. In 1906, the family of poison squad member Robert Vance Freeman used the press to blame the man’s tuberculosis and subsequent death on the borax he was made to consume. Although Wiley had discharged Freeman in 1903 because his symptoms had rendered him “disabled,” he dismissed any idea the borax was at fault in his death. No charges or lawsuit were ever filed.

Although an experiment involving purposeful and deliberate doses of poison could never be described as "safe," Freeman's fate was an anomaly. Wiley made certain to limit a volunteer's service to one 12-month term, with the chemist correctly observing that “one year of this kind of life is as much as a young man wants.”

Additional Sources: "The Poison Squad and the Advent of Food and Drug Regulation" [PDF]

15 Convenient Products That Are Perfect for Summer

First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch
First Colonial/Lunatec/Safe Touch

The Fourth of July is the epitome of summer—and after several months spent indoors, you need some outdoor fun more than anything. Check out these 15 summer must-haves while they’re on sale and save an extra 15 percent when you spend $50 or more with the code JULYFOURTH15.

1. CARSULE Pop-Up Cabin for Your Car; $300 (20 percent off)

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This tent connects to your hatchback car like a tailgate mobile living room. The installation takes just a few minutes and the entire thing stands 6.5 feet tall so you can enjoy the outdoors from the comfort of your car.

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If you just so happen to be one of those unlucky souls who attracts a suspicious amount of mosquitos the second you step outside, you need this repellent lamp to help keep your arms and legs bite-free. It uses a non-toxic combination of LED lights, air turbulence, and other methods to keep the pests at bay.

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First Colonial cooler.
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Cookouts are easy with this cooler and table set that chills your drink until you're ready to pop it into one of the four convenient cupholders. Bring this set camping or out by the pool for convenience anywhere.

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If you’ve ever dreamed of better mobility while exploring the water, you’re not alone. The Trident underwater scooter, which raised over $82,000 on Indiegogo, can propel you through the water at up to nearly 6 feet per second, which isn't that far off from how fast Michael Phelps swam in his prime. The battery on it will last 45 minutes, allowing you to traverse with ease.

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Headlamp from One80Light
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This portable fan comes in a powerful handheld size so you can keep cool while on the move. Unlike other portable fans, this one has a sleek, bladeless design and features three different speeds.

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12. Bladeless Personal Fan; $22 (63 percent off)

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This bladeless fan won't just keep you cool while you work on your laptop—it also has a built-in rechargable battery that you can use to charge your phone.

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13. MOGICS Coconut: Portable Waterproof Light; $37 (24 percent off)

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This portable light is designed to adapt to your lighting preference. It self-inflates in a few seconds and can bounce, get wet, and set the mood.

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How the Scientist Who Invented Ibuprofen Accidentally Discovered It Was Great for Hangovers

This man had too many dry martinis at a business lunch.
This man had too many dry martinis at a business lunch.
George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

When British pharmacologist Stewart Adams and his colleague John Nicholson began tinkering with various drug compounds in the 1950s, they were hoping to come up with a cure for rheumatoid arthritis—something with the anti-inflammatory effects of aspirin, but without the risk of allergic reaction or internal bleeding.

Though they never exactly cured rheumatoid arthritis, they did succeed in developing a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that greatly reduced pain of all kinds. In 1966, they patented their creation, which was first known as 2-(4-isobutylphenyl) propionic acid and later renamed ibuprofen. While originally approved as a prescription drug in the UK, it soon became clear ibuprofen was safer and more effective than other pain relievers. It eventually hit the market as an over-the-counter medication.

During that time, Adams conducted one last impromptu experiment with the drug, which took place far outside the lab and involved only a single participant: himself.

In 1971, Adams arrived in Moscow to speak at a pharmacology conference and spent the night before his scheduled appearance tossing back shots of vodka at a reception with the other attendees. When he awoke the next morning, he was greeted with a hammering headache. So, as Smithsonian.com reports, Adams tossed back 600 milligrams of ibuprofen.

“That was testing the drug in anger, if you like,” Adams told The Telegraph in 2007. “But I hoped it really could work magic.”

As anyone who has ever been in that situation can probably predict, the ibuprofen did work magic on Adams’s hangover. After that, according to The Washington Post, the pharmaceutical company Adams worked for began promoting the drug as a general painkiller, and people started to stumble upon its use as a miracle hangover cure.

“It's funny now,” Adams told The Telegraph. “But over the years so many people have told me that ibuprofen really works for them, and did I know it was so good for hangovers? Of course, I had to admit I did.”

[h/t Smithsonian.com]