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The 1902 Poison Squad that tested the chemicals put in our food — by eating them

None But The Brave

A group called the Poison Squad created their own slogan for eating weird food. (FDA)

The next time you sit down for a midday snack, remember: eating can be an act of courage —especially if you're willing to experiment. These brave souls sat down to dinner, ate something weird, and saved lives in the process.

1) Harvey Wiley assembled a team to eat poison. It's the reason you don't have borax in your applesauce.

The Poison Squad

Harvey Wiley, at center, and the Poison Squad, getting ready to chow down on borax. (FDA)

Harvey W. Wiley was an intellectual who taught Greek, Latin, and Chemistry. So, naturally, he assembled a group of young men to eat poison.

In 1882, Wiley became chief of the US Department of Agriculture's Chemical Division, and he quickly became an advocate for food standardization and regulation in a country that lacked both. Along with activists like Alice Lakey, he led a movement to make food safer. In 1902, that included establishing what the press called "The Poison Squad."

Food manufacturers frequently used boric acid and other untested chemicals as preservatives. Wiley thought that might be a problem, so he came up with a unique solution. As The Washington Times reported, he assembled a squad of hearty young men (only men were allowed) to eat dinner with him, and after dinner, the bold youngsters consumed a capsule of boric acid. Wiley continually monitored their health for suspicious symptoms or any weight changes. On Christmas, they got turkey. It was a good deal, except for the eating poison part—at least one mother claimed that being in the Poison Squad killed her son, though most anecdotal reports claim that everyone survived the tests.

More important than the Christmas feast, the strange experiment got results. The borax made even vigorous young men sick, and similar tests were conducted on copper sulfate, salicylic acid, and formaldehyde. Wiley's long battle with the food industry ultimately led to better regulation and the creation of the FDA. And the men became celebrities with their own theme song:

On Prussic acid we break our fast;

we lunch on a morphine stew;

We dine with a matchhead consomme,

drink carbolic acid brew;

-The Song Of The Poison Squad by S.W. Gillilan

2) Captain Cook tricked his crew into eating more than three tons of sauerkraut. It kept them alive.

Captain Cook

Captain Cook, pondering sauerkraut. (Wikimedia Commons)

You may be familiar with scurvy, a sailor's disease that stems from a vitamin C deficiency. It can cause heart problems, make your teeth fall out, or even kill you. And back in the days of long sea voyages, it wasn't easy to prevent. The citrus cures were well-known, but it wasn't always practical to bring fresh fruit on long journeys at sea.

In 1768, Captain James Cook was facing the threat of scurvy on a trip and so stocked his ship with both fruit and a less well-known food: 7,200 pounds of sauerkraut.

Captain Cook had an obsessive focus on sauerkraut as the solution to scurvy. He believed that the fermented cabbage was uniquely suited to keeping his crew healthy. Cook didn't know it at the time, but cabbage is rich in vitamin C, and the fermentation process helps boost vitamin C levels even higher.

Unfortunately, Cook's crew wasn't interested in eating sauerkraut all day, so he had to trick them. As he wrote in his journals, he "had some of [the sauerkraut] dressed every day for the (officers') cabin table." The crew wanted to eat what the officers were eating, so they ended up eating the unlikely dish.

Cook's trick didn't necessarily transform the world of scurvy treatments — at the time, wort was still being used. But Cook's sauerkraut definitely helped his crew have a higher survival rate than many of their peers.

3) Charles Townshend ate turnips so you don't have to

Turnips

These aren't just turnips. They're progress. (Shutterstock)

Did Charles "Turnip" Townshend eat a lot of turnips? Probably, though we can't know for sure. What we do know is that the British Secretary of State loved feeding turnips to his animals. Alexander Pope said Townshend was obsessed with talking about turnips and, most importantly, he popularized the use of turnips in British crop rotation.

Those crop-rotation techniques helped preserve nutrient-rich soil and dramatically increase production — in addition to giving animals a new food (Townshend fed turnips to his cows). Though Townshend didn't necessarily invent crop rotation (similar rotations were already used in Holland), his powerful perch in English society helped make the technique a hit. The turnip didn't just make everyday life better. In the eyes of the turnip's staunchest advocates, the root increased agricultural productivity so much that it gave the British enough time and resources to kickstart the Industrial Revolution.

Charles Townshend helped change agriculture, but all he got was a snarky "Turnip" nickname (instead of being immortalized as a band name, like his agricultural peer Jethro Tull). Sometimes, the food has to be its own reward.

4) Mary Hunt bought a moldy cantaloupe, and it helped mass-production of penicillin take off

Cantaloupes

Moldy cantaloupes saved lives. What have you done today? (Shutterstock)

In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. But that wasn't the end of the story. There were several crucial advances on penicillin in the years that followed — and one involved the purchase of a moldy cantaloupe.

After Fleming's discovery, many scientists tried to develop better means of producing penicillin. As techniques for using the mold developed, demand increased, especially during World War II. The only problem was that the new wonder drug was still taking far too long to produce.

So scientist Howard Florey and his team traveled to the agricultural research center in Peoria, Illinois in search of a more productive strain of mold. Following the discovery that corn steep liquor improved production, the scientists searched for other plants that might be used to make lots of penicillin.

And that's where "Moldy" Mary Hunt came in (most reports identify her as a lab technician). In 1941, she bought a moldy cantaloupe from a local fruit market. Hunt refrained from eating it (fortunately). Further testing revealed that the cantaloupe mold yielded significantly more penicillin than Fleming's — and after a few more improvements, mass production was on its way.