Dr. Harvey Wiley: A True Hero

Portrait of Dr. Harvey W. Wiley (cropped).jpgDr. 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.

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3 thoughts on “Dr. Harvey Wiley: A True Hero

  1. Bless Dr. Wiley and those that carried on his research. If business had the equivalent of ten commandments, one of them, if not the first, would be something like: Let nothing stand in the way of the pursuit of profits. Nothing!
    Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” 1906) based on the meat packing industry nearly turned me into a vegetarian forty year ago. While Rachael Carson’s “Silent Spring 1962” was another seminal work on the dangers of pesticides; and Jessica Mitford’s work on the “American Way of Death” was another eye-opener. So many abuses. So many victims. As a trained environmentalist I’ve studied the history of the oil, mining and timber industries work under a motto of: “Cut it out, mine it out, drill it out…and get out,” leaving a mess for others to clean up. That would be all of us.

  2. “The Jungle” was an important part of the movement, as the documentary notes. I agree with everything you say and my wife and I are both vegans—and not surprisingly quite healthy in our late 60s.

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