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2019-2020 Go Big Read: The Poison Squad : MAJOR PLAYERS


Credit: Science History Institute

Harvey Washington Wiley, the major protagonist in The Poison Squad, was born in 1844. Wiley taught chemistry at several places, including Purdue University, until he was offered a position as chief chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1883. He had become concerned with food adulteration and fakery while at Purdue, and once he joined the USDA he began a rigorous investigation into this issue. He was concerned with food fraud (adding chalk to milk or apple peelings to strawberry jam, for instance), as well as the addition of preservatives like formaldehyde, borax, and salicylic acid to food and drink. His main goals were to ensure restrictions on these harmful preservatives and to enact government regulations on labeling requirements. Wiley’s tireless work was instrumental to the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the first in a series of laws about consumer protection and food labeling. The Meat Inspection Act was passed at the same time. The Pure Food and Drug Act specifically prohibited interstate commerce of food, drinks, ro drugs that had been mislabeled or adulterated. At the time, the act was commonly known as “Dr. Wiley’s law.”

Historical profile on, provides a great overview of Wiley’s life and his work concerning food safety

Biography on the website


Credit: The Atlantic

The Poison Squad and its members were also important figures in Wiley’s journey. In 1902, Wiley began an experiment where young, healthy government workers volnuteered to eat three free meals a day, willingly consuming preservatives – including borax and salicylic acid – along with the food. Wiley wanted to test the long-term effects of these preservatives. The results of the experiment were an important part of Wiley’s advocacy for food safety.  

The 'Poison Squad' That Shook America’s Faith in Preservatives

Borax: It's What's For Dinner


This page highlights several major players in Wiley’s story, but there were many other notable people involved! Review the Cast of Characters section, p. xiii-xxi in The Poison Squad, to see a list of the people that Wiley encountered and interacted with in his quest for food safety.




A number of women played an important role in Wiley’s story.


Women’s Christian Temperance Union

During Wiley’s campaign, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had been focusing on temperance and women’s suffrage. Included in Wiley’s food fraud were patent medications. Many of these were alcoholic, which brought together Wiley’s campaign with that of the WCTU.

History page on

The Past is Present: Pure Food and the WCTU


Alice Lakey

In 1903, Alice Lakey, president of the Village Improvement Association in Cranford, New Jersey, asked the Department of Agriculture to have someone come and speak to the association about tainted food. That speaker was Wiley, and Lakey soon became one of his most steadfast allies. She organized women’s groups to advocate for food safety, and she eventually became the head of the Pure Food Committee of the National Consumers League.


Fannie Farmer

Fannie Farmer wrote several popular and successful cookbooks, including The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book and Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent. This second book had a section focusing on the unhealthiness and pollution of milk, which was also something that Wiley had noted and written about extensively. Farmer was an early advocate for pasteurization.  

Overlooked No More: Fannie Farmer, Modern Cookery’s Pioneer

Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent, available through UW-Madison Libraries 



Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair was published in 1906. Sinclair’s main intent with this book was to expose the horrific conditions for workers in Chicago. However, his book also included graphic descriptions of the unsanitary meatpacking industry which outraged and scandalized the nation. The Jungle and its aftermath were one of the leading factors that influenced President Roosevelt to support the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Page about Sinclair on The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project 

The Jungle, available through UW-Madison Libraries