Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley (October 18, 1844 – June 30, 1930)
I recently watched “The Poison Squad,” an episode on PBS’ American Experience. It is the story of a time when Americans had no idea that toxic substances were in their foods and of how government chemist Dr. Harvey Wiley who, determined to banish dangerous substances from dinner tables, took on the powerful food manufacturers and their allies. Dr. Wiley was an American chemist who fought for the passage of the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and subsequently worked at the Good Housekeeping Institute
laboratories. He was also the first commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration. He was awarded the Elliott Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1910.
Here’s the story in brief. Just over a hundred years ago, milk contained water, chalk, and borax! Formaldyhide was in everything. (Yes, the chemical used to preserve dead bodies.) In fact, no chemical was too deadly and no process too cheap to taint food. Canned meat for example was virtually inedible. However, the corporations who profited from the system didn’t want any government oversight or regulation and they fought and slandered Dr. Wiley for his entire life.
Surely this all sounds familiar. Corporations killing people for profit—think tobacco and fossil fuels—and trying to destroy anyone who threatens their profits. (If only people knew more about history.) But Wiley persevered and fought diligently for all of us. He also had help from the woman’s movement—mothers who wanted their children to eat safe food. Needless to say, his work isn’t done; much of the food produced today is still very bad for you. It may kill you slowly, but at least it won’t kill you immediately.
What then is Dr. Wiley’s legacy? According to one historian, it is that “You can buy a gallon of milk at the grocery store and not die.” Now that’s a great legacy.
We are all indebted to Dr. Wiley and the woman who aided his movement. I would like to thank all of them and I give the episode my unequivocal recommendation. Dr. Wiley was a true hero.