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In The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New York Times-bestselling author Deborah Blum explores the alarming state of food production in early 20th-century America and the titanic battle to make food safe.
At the end of the nineteenth century, food in the United States often contained dangerous, even lethal, ingredients. Then, in 1883, chemistry professor Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley was named chief chemist of the U.S. agriculture department, and under his leadership, the agency began methodically investigating food and drink safety through scientific experiments. Unchecked by government guidelines, basic safety, or even labeling requirements, food manufacturers brazenly sold adulterated products, from expired meats to brown sugar laced with ground insects. In the face of this rampant corruption, the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley was determined to take on powerful corporations and political interests in pursuit of food safety legislation. Over the next thirty years, he campaigned indefatigably for consumer protection, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, “The Poison Squad.” This remarkable story underscores the importance of food and drug safety, Harvey Washington Wiley’s work reminds us of the need for citizen crusaders who are unafraid to defend the systems that protect consumers.
Deborah Blum is director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, and editor of Undark magazine, (undark.org). In 1992, she won the Pulitzer Prize for a series on primate research, which she turned into a book, The Monkey Wars. Her other books include The Poisoner’s Handbook, Ghost Hunters, Love at Goon Park, and Sex on the Brain. She has written for publications including The New York Times, Wired, Time, Discover, Mother Jones, The Guardian and The Boston Globe. Blum is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a lifetime associate of the National Academy of Sciences.