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The poison-eating heroes who helped make food safe

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Harvey W. Wiley was an intellectual who taught Greek, Latin, and chemistry. So naturally, he assembled a group of young men to eat poison. As the above video shows, it had amazing results.

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 hardy 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 poison-eating 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 Food and Drug Administration. 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 consommé,

drink carbolic acid brew;

-The Song of the Poison Squad by S.W. Gillilan