Harvey W. WileyGiants of the Past

Harvey W. Wiley (1844-1930)

The Early Years

Few chemists have had more impact on public health than Harvey Washington Wiley. Born in Kent, Indiana, in 1844, Wiley joined the Union Army in May, 1864, where he served as a member of the 137th Indiana Infantry Regiment whose duties involved guarding railroads in Tennessee and Alabama. Although combat casualties were light, 17 members of his regiment died from disease and two deserted.

Wiley was a corporal when discharged in September 1864. He then enrolled at Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana, where he embarked on an amazing academic career receiving the Bachelor’s (A.B.), Master’s (A.M.) and Ph.D. degree from Hanover College, as well as an M.D. degree from Indiana Medical College in 1871. In addition, he taught Latin, Greek and chemistry at Butler University and at a high school, both of which are located in Indianapolis. Following a brief interlude at Harvard University at Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree, Wiley accepted a chemistry faculty position at the newly opened Purdue University at West Layfayette, Indiana.

In 1878, Wiley travelled to Europe and attended a series of lectures given by August von Hoffmann, discoverer of coal tar derivatives including aniline. von Hoffmann was so impressed by young Wiley that he recommended him as a fellow in the prestigious German Chemical Society. While in Germany, Wiley spent considerable time working at the Imperial Food Laboratory in Bismarck where he mastered the use of the polariscope and the chemistry of sugars.

After returning to Purdue, the Indiana Board of Health enlisted his help in detecting the adulteration of sugars and syrups. Wiley’s final years at Purdue were spent studying sorghum and sugar with the goal that the United States could develop a strong domestic sugar industry. Wiley’s first publication in1881 discussed the adulteration of sugar with glucose. Although Wiley was a candidate for the presidency of Purdue University, he was passed over because he was considered to be too young, too jovial, holding unorthodox religious beliefs and he was a bachelor.

Public Service

In 1882, Wiley was offered the position of chief chemist in the Department of Chemistry of the U. S. Department of Agriculture. George Loring, the commissioner of the department, wanted someone who could lead a program aimed at developing sorghum into a sugar crop. In 1883, Wiley accepted, bringing a practical knowledge of agriculture, a sound approach to agricultural chemistry and a knack for public relations to Washington, D.C.

The widespread use of food preservatives — including borax and sulfur — was a major food safety issue at the turn of the century. Although Wiley believed that the burden of proving the safety of food preservatives rested on the manufacturer of the additives, in 1899 he boldly asked the U.S. Congress for funds to conduct his own studies, hoping to learn whether preservatives should ever be used and, if so, which ones and at what levels. Wiley hoped that if he could prove that food adulteration went beyond cheating to obvious harm, both the public and Congress would support a national food safety policy. In 1902, three years after his initial request, Congress enacted new controls over imported foods, including provisions for the inspection and rejection of adulterated shipments as well as funds to conduct food preservative studies or “hygienic table trials.”

Wiley and others quickly assembled a dozen young, able-bodied men, all Department of Agriculture volunteers, whom the press dubbed the “poison squad.” Initially, five preservatives were studied including borax, salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate and formaldehyde. Dosages ranged from 1/5 gram to 4 grams by the end of the 5-year study. The men pledged to eat their meals at the “hygienic table” and agreed not to consume outside foods or beverages except water, which was measured and reported. Each participant recorded his weight, temperature and pulse rate prior to each meal. Physicians monitored the condition of the volunteers and any symptoms recorded. The major complaint from volunteers was submitting urine and stool samples for daily analysis. A part of the study also involved determining whether the preservatives were eliminated through perspiration and respiration. The volunteers were fully aware that they were consuming potential poisons, but they did not know which foods contained the preservative. Borax was first added to butter and the men quickly developed distaste for it. To solve the problem, Wiley put all the preservatives into gelatin capsules because, when taken in the middle of a meal, they would quickly dissolve into digested foods.

The men who took part in these daring studies agreed to do so for six months and not to hold the government responsible for any illness or injury that might result. Their only rewards were high-quality meals prepared by a certified civil service commissioned chef, and responding to Wiley's appeal to promote scientific knowledge.

The poison squad quickly became a national sensation. Wiley was concerned that the humorous banter of the experiments would discredit the serious nature of his work, but also realized that the public had to be won over. After learning that reporters had been interviewing the chef through a basement window, Wiley took the press into his confidence by reporting every detail as well as joining the men for his own meals. Wiley terminated experiments only when the additives made volunteers so ill they couldn't function - nausea, vomiting, stomach ache, or the ability to do work of any kind.

Wiley's studies on borax, reported in 1904, showed that it was one of the least toxic preservatives. However, as dosages were increased, diminished appetite, feeling of fullness and stomach aches, dull and persistent headaches and abdominal pain were observed. Similar results were obtained with other preservatives tested in the study. The study showed that the preservatives were not excreted in the faeces, perspiration or respiration.

The food industry wielded a powerful influence over legislators and Wiley had to admit that very small amounts of preservatives might be harmless and were beneficial in retarding food spoilage. By the same token, he argued that the accumulation of such additives posed a threat to public health, since he could not determine or control how much a person might ingest over time. Wiley was convinced that any kind of regulation would require the treatment of all preservatives alike, ruling out discrimination between food chemicals according to their risks and benefits. Although Wiley was unsuccessful in all of his crusades against food preservatives, four of the compounds tested by the poison squad quickly disappeared from use. They include borax, salicylic acid, formaldehyde and copper sulfate. Thus, the poison squad and all they ate paved the way for federal regulation of foods and drugs in the United States. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act in a form similar to that drafted by Wiley. Further revision came in 1938, when it was amended by Congress and entitled the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

Wiley's experiments and the poison squad were highly politicized, controversial and scientifically contentious. However, his pioneering work lead to the scientific regulation of food additives with the premise that preservatives found safe could be legally added to foods, but not to disguise the use of ingredients unfit for human consumption. Although no formal long-term follow-up studies were done on the poison squad, anecdotal reports indicate no one was harmed. According to William Robinson, a member of the poison squad, the human guinea pigs suffered no permanent illness or injury. Robinson died in 1979 at the age of 94.

His Legacy

In 1912, Wiley left the U. S. Department of Agriculture to take a position with Good Housekeeping magazine. His official title was “Director, Bureau of Foods, Sanitation and Health.” 1001 Tests of Foods, Beverages and Toilet Accessories, was published by the magazine in 1914. The book described products sold in the United States along with their manufacturers, such as: “Southern Cotton Oil Company, 24 Broad St., New York, New York, Wesson Snowdrift Oil (a good cottonseed oil, properly labelled); and Colgate and Company, New York, Cold Cream, Fat, Petrolatum, Wax, Soap and Perfume (claim that is unequalled is not warranted)”. Prior to joining Good Housekeeping, Wiley published a book under his own name entitled, The History of a Crime against the Food Law, The Amazing Story of the National Food and Drug Laws Intended to Protect the Health of the People.

These books make fascinating reading and may be purchased on the Internet at very reasonable prices. Wiley received numerous honors before his death in 1930 and his memory is honored by the Harvey W. Wiley Award given by AOAC International (Association of Analytical Communities). Wiley was the founder of AOAC (1884) and served as its president in 1886. The award recognizes a scientist who has made outstanding contributions to analytical method development in an area of interest to AOAC International.

A number of AOCS members have received the prestigious Wiley Award, including O.L. Shotwell (1982), R.T. O'Connor (1967), W.A. Pons, Jr. (1976), J.W. King (1997) and D. Firestone (2000).

Acknowledgement: This document was first published in Inform, February 2005, Volume 16 (2), pp. 111-112.


Gary R. List

Formerly of - National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, ARS, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Peoria, IL, USA

Lipid Library

Updated: Jan. 6th, 2010


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