The Men Who Volunteered to Be Poisoned by the Government

Harvey Washington Wiley, the brusque and determined leader of the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Chemistry in Washington, D.C., had good news and bad news for the 12 young men who had answered his call for volunteers. First, Wiley promised them three ample, freshly prepared meals every day for at least six months. Since the majority of the men were Department clerks living on modest wages, this was a tempting offer. The volunteers would also be under exceptional medical care, with weekly physicals and daily recordings of their weight, temperature, and pulse rate.

This was, Wiley explained, because he’d be slowly poisoning them.

Wiley’s staff would put borax in their butter, milk, or coffee. Formaldehyde would lurk in their meats, copper sulfate and saltpeter in their fruit pies. Wiley would begin at low doses and then ratchet up the amount until one or more of the men complained of debilitating symptoms, like vomiting or dizziness. Those people would then be excused from the program until they felt well enough to resume. In the event a subject died or became seriously ill, he would waive the right to pursue legal remedy against the government.

The year was 1902. With funding and consent from Congress, Wiley was about to embark on an experiment he dubbed the “hygienic table trials,” but it was the Washington news media that came up with the nickname that would stick: They called his volunteers "the Poison Squad."

The Poison Squad dining area. Image credit: FDA History Office [PDF] // Public Domain

At the turn of the last century, food manufacturers and distributors were untouched by government oversight. There were no federal requirements for labeling, which meant ingredients didn't need to be listed, and there were no explicit consequences for tampering or adulterating consumer goods. Parents would unwittingly give their babies cough syrup containing morphine to calm them down. Olive oil might actually be cottonseed oil, which was cheaper for makers to source; glucose could be passed off as honey.

A former professor of chemistry at Purdue University, Wiley was aghast at the freewheeling nature of the food industry. He was especially concerned with the use of preservatives, intended to ward off spoilage but poorly understood when consumed in consistent amounts over time. Taking a post as chief chemist at the Department of Agriculture in 1883, Wiley repeatedly petitioned for money and resources to quantify how these substances impacted the human body. Time and again, food lobbyists would thwart his attempts.

In 1902, Congress finally agreed to Wiley’s persistent requests, offering him $5000 to subsidize an experiment on the effects of food additives with a group of men who would spend at least six months, and eventually up to a year, in his service. In the basement of the Bureau’s Washington office, Wiley set up a kitchen, dining room, and lab; he installed a chef, known only as “Perry,” to prepare a variety of welcoming dishes for his volunteers. Roast chicken and braised beef would be served alongside borax and formaldehyde.

Although the ethics of the study could be debated both then and now, Wiley disclosed his intentions to the 12 men who signed up for the program. Mostly young, they were selected for having durable constitutions that might more easily withstand the accumulation of foreign chemicals. Wiley believed if the dosages bothered them, then children and older members of the public were in even more danger.

In exchange for free food and the sense of contributing to the betterment of society, the volunteers agreed to eat their three daily meals only in the test kitchen. No snacking between meals would be permitted, and only water could be ingested away from the table. Their weight, pulse, and temperature would be recorded before sitting down. Wiley also had each man carry a satchel with them at all times to collect urine and feces for laboratory analysis. “Every particle of their secreta,” Wiley said, was necessary to the trial.

The first treat was borax, a ground mineral commonly used to preserve meats and other perishables. Wiley allowed the men a period of 10 to 20 days of eating normally to establish baseline readings of their health and symptoms before Chef Perry began adding a half-gram of the powder to their butter. Although the men knew borax would be served, they didn’t know how—yet most all of them quickly began avoiding the butter out of instinct once they had gotten a taste of it.

Wiley next tried slipping it into their milk, but the same thing happened: They stopped drinking the milk. Having failed to account for the body’s natural resistance to being contaminated with the metallic-tasting substance, he began offering borax-filled capsules with each meal. The men dutifully swallowed them as a kind of dessert following the main course.

Wiley’s squad tolerated the borax—7.5 grains daily—for several weeks. But after a few months, headaches, stomach aches, and depression began to materialize. At six months, they threatened to go on strike unless the slow drip of poison stopped. The summer months seemed to exacerbate their ailments.

By then, Wiley had gotten enough data on borax. He moved on to salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate, and other additives, administering each one at a time, all across the menu, to assess the response. Sometimes, the progression was so uneventful that the men took it upon themselves to liven up the proceedings. One laced a colleague’s drink with quinine, which can cause headaches and profuse sweating. Not long after, the man went out on a date; he later recounted that when he began to feel the symptoms of the quinine, he "went home prepared to die in the interest of science." (He was fine.)

Other times, the experiments were as dangerous as advertised. Owing to excruciating symptoms, the trial with formaldehyde was terminated early.

A sign posted in the Poison Squad's dining room. Image credit: FDA via Flickr // U.S. Government Works

Rotating members of the Poison Squad convened for roughly five years between 1902 and 1907. All along, lobbyists fought to suppress Wiley’s findings. His 477-page report on the effects of borax was well-received, but supervisors—and even the Secretary of Agriculture—tried to stifle his review of benzoic acid, a widely used preservative, due to its damaging findings and subsequent pestering by food lobbyists. The report was leaked only when the Secretary was away on vacation and a staffer misunderstood his instructions, ordering it printed by mistake.

In 1906, Congress passed both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, both designed to restrict the kinds of preservatives and additives used by food companies. The former was known as the “Wiley Act,” because Wiley had been the one to demonstrate the need for its inception. They were the first federal laws to regulate food. By the 1930s, Wiley's Bureau of Chemistry had morphed into the Food and Drug Administration—and almost all of the additives Wiley trialed had been excised from the commercial food industry.

Wiley himself remained with the Department of Agriculture until 1912, when he began a 19-year position as a consumer advocate for Good Housekeeping magazine. The public, which had come to know Wiley through the extensive media coverage of the Poison Squad, looked upon him as a reliable source for information.

In 1927, Wiley used his position to notify readers of a toxic substance that was widespread, commonly absorbed, and had underestimated potential to cause cancer. The American public, he warned, should be very wary of tobacco. While Good Housekeeping stopped accepting cigarette ads in 1952, the Surgeon General didn't issue a formal warning until 1964.

Meanwhile, the dozens of men who consented to the regulated poisonings were said to have suffered no lasting effects, save perhaps for one. In 1906, the family of poison squad member Robert Vance Freeman used the press to blame the man’s tuberculosis and subsequent death on the borax he was made to consume. Although Wiley had discharged Freeman in 1903 because his symptoms had rendered him “disabled,” he dismissed any idea the borax was at fault in his death. No charges or lawsuit were ever filed.

Although an experiment involving purposeful and deliberate doses of poison could never be described as "safe," Freeman's fate was an anomaly. Wiley made certain to limit a volunteer's service to one 12-month term, with the chemist correctly observing that “one year of this kind of life is as much as a young man wants.”

Additional Sources: "The Poison Squad and the Advent of Food and Drug Regulation" [PDF]

15 Facts About Nicolaus Copernicus

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Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus fundamentally altered our understanding of science. Born on February 19, 1473, he popularized the heliocentric theory that all planets revolve around the Sun, ushering in the Copernican Revolution. But he was also a lifelong bachelor and member of the clergy who dabbled in medicine and economics. Dive in to these 15 facts about the father of modern astronomy.

1. He came from a family of merchants and clergy.

Some historians believe that Copernicus's name derives from Koperniki, a village in Poland named after tradesmen who mined and sold copper. The astronomer's father, also named Nicolaus Copernicus, was a successful copper merchant in Krakow. His mother, Barbara Watzenrode, came from a powerful family of merchants, and her brother, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, was an influential Bishop. Two of Copernicus's three older siblings joined the Catholic Church, one as a canon and one as a nun.

2. He was a polyglot.

Growing up, Copernicus likely knew both Polish and German. When Copernicus's father died when he was around 10, Lucas Watzenrode funded his nephew's education and he started learning Latin. In 1491, Copernicus began studying astronomy, math, philosophy, and logic at Krakow University. Five years later, he headed to modern Italy's Bologna University to study law, where he likely picked up some Italian. During his studies, he also read Greek, meaning modern historians think he knew or understood five languages.

3. He wasn't the first person to suggest heliocentrism ...

 A page from the work of Copernicus showing the position of planets in relation to the Sun.
A page from the work of Copernicus showing the position of planets in relation to the Sun.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Copernicus is credited with introducing heliocentrism—the idea that the Earth orbits the sun, rather than the sun orbiting the Earth. But several ancient Greek and Islamic scholars from various cultures discussed similar ideas centuries earlier. For example, Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek astronomer who lived in the 200s BCE, theorized that Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun.

4. … but he didn't fully give credit to earlier scholars.

To be clear, Copernicus knew of the work of earlier mathematicians. In a draft of his 1543 manuscript, he even included passages acknowledging the heliocentric ideas of Aristarchus and other ancient Greek astronomers who had written previous versions of the theory. Before submitting the manuscript for publication, though, Copernicus removed this section; theories for the removal range from wanting to present the ideas as wholly his own to simply switching out a Latin quote for a "more erudite" Greek quote and incidentally removing Aristarchus. These extra pages weren't found for another 300-some years.

5. He made contributions to economics.

He's known for math and science, but Copernicus was also quite the economist. In 1517, he wrote a research paper outlining proposals for how the Polish monarch could simplify the country's multiple currencies, especially in regard to the debasement of some of those currencies. His ideas on supply and demand, inflation, and government price-fixing influenced later economic principles such as Gresham's Law (the observation that "bad money drives out good" if they exchange for the same price; for example, if a country has both a paper $1 bill and a $1 coin, the value of the metal in the coin is higher than the value of the cotton and linen in the bill, and thus the bill will be spent as currency more because of that) and the Quantity Theory of Money (the idea that the amount of money in circulation is proportional to how much goods cost).

6. He was a physician (but he didn't have a medical degree).

After studying law, Copernicus traveled to the University of Padua so he could become a medical advisor to his sick uncle, Bishop Watzenrode. Despite spending two years studying medical texts and learning anatomy, Copernicus left medical school without a doctoral degree. Nevertheless, he traveled with his uncle and treated him, as well as other members of the clergy who needed medical attention.

7. He was probably a lifelong bachelor …

An etching of Copernicus, circa 1530.
An etching of Copernicus, circa 1530.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

As an official in the Catholic Church, Copernicus took a vow of celibacy. He never married and was most likely a virgin (more on that below), but children were not completely absent from his life: After his older sister Katharina died, he became the financial guardian of her five children, his nieces and nephews.

8. … But he may have had an affair with his housekeeper.

Copernicus took a vow of celibacy, but did he keep it? In the late 1530s, the astronomer was in his sixties when Anna Schilling, a woman in her late forties, began living with him. Schilling may have been related to Copernicus—some historians think he was her great uncle—and she worked as his housekeeper for two years. For unknown reasons, the bishop he worked under admonished Copernicus twice for having Schilling live with him, even telling the astronomer to fire her and writing to other church officials about the matter.

9. He attended four universities before earning a degree.

A Polish stamp of Nicolaus Copernicus.
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Copernicus spent over a decade studying at universities across Poland and Italy, but he usually left before he got his degree. Why skip the diplomas? Some historians argue that at the time, it was not unusual for students to leave a university without earning a degree. Moreover, Copernicus didn't need a degree to practice medicine or law, to work as a member of the Catholic Church, or even to take graduate or higher level courses. 

But right before returning to Poland he received a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara. According to Copernicus scholar Edward Rosen this wasn't exactly for scholarly purposes, but that to "show that he had not frittered his time away on wine, women, and song, he had to bring home a diploma. That cost much less in Ferrara than in the other Italian universities where he studied."

10. He was cautious about publicizing his views.

During Copernicus's lifetime, nearly everyone believed in geocentrism—the view that the Earth lies at the center of the universe. Despite that, in the 1510s Copernicus wrote Commentariolus, or "the Little Commentary," a short text that discussed heliocentrism and was circulated amongst his friends. It was soon found circulating further afield, and it's said that Pope Clement VII heard a talk about the new theory and reacted favorably. Later, Cardinal Nicholas Schönberg wrote a letter of encouragement to Copernicus, but Copernicus still hesitated in publishing the full version. Some historians propose that Copernicus was worried about ridicule from the scientific community due to not being able to work out all of the issues heliocentrism created. Others propose that with the rise of the Reformation, the Catholic Church was increasingly cracking down on dissent and Copernicus feared persecution. Either way, he didn't make his complete work public until 1543.

11. He published his work on his deathbed.

An antique bookseller displays a rare first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus' revolutionary book on the planet system.
An antique bookseller displays a rare first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus' revolutionary book on the planet system, at the Tokyo International antique book fair on March 12, 2008. The book, published in 1543 and entitled in Latin "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI," carries a diagram that shows the Earth and other planets revolving around the Sun, countering the then-prevailing geocentric theory.
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO, AFP/Getty Images

Copernicus finishing writing his book explaining heliocentrism, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Orbs), in the 1530s. When he was on his deathbed in 1543, he finally decided to publish his controversial work. According to lore, the astronomer awoke from a coma to read pages from his just-printed book shortly before passing away.

12. Galileo was punished for agreeing with Copernicus.

Copernicus dedicated his book to the Pope, but the Catholic Church repudiated it decades after it was published, placing it on the Index of Prohibited Books—pending revision—in 1616. A few years later, the Church ended the ban after editing the text to present Copernicus's views as wholly hypothetical. In 1633, 90 years after Copernicus's death, the Church convicted astronomer Galileo Galilei of "strong suspicion of heresy" for espousing Copernicus's theory of heliocentrism. After a day in prison, Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

13. There's a chemical element named after him.

Take a look at the periodic table of elements, and you might notice one with the symbol Cn. Called Copernicium, this element with atomic number 112 was named to honor the astronomer in 2010. The element is highly radioactive, with the most stable isotope having a half life of around 30 seconds.

14. Archaeologists finally discovered his remains in 2008.

Frombork Cathedral
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Although Copernicus died in 1543 and was buried somewhere under the cathedral where he worked, archaeologists weren't sure of the exact location of his grave. They performed excavations in and around Frombork Cathedral, finally hitting pay dirt in 2005 by finding part of a skull and skeleton under the church's marble floor, near an altar. It took three years to complete forensic facial reconstruction and compare DNA from the astronomer's skeleton with hair from one of his books, but archeologists were able to confirm that they had found his skeleton. Members of the Polish clergy buried Copernicus for a second time at Frombork in 2010.

15. THERE ARE MONUMENTS TO HIM AROUND THE WORLD.

The Nicolaus Copernicus Monument in Warsaw, Poland.
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A prominent statue of the astronomer, simply called the Nicolaus Copernicus Monument, stands near the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. There are also replicas of this monument outside Chicago's Adler Planetarium and Montreal's Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan. Besides monuments, Copernicus also has a museum and research laboratory—Warsaw's Copernicus Science Centre—dedicated to him.

11 Spectacular Facts About the Moon

Matt Cardy/Stringer, Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Stringer, Getty Images

The Moon is Earth’s closest satellite in our solar system, but in many ways, we hardly know our neighbor. Scientists aren’t entirely sure how it formed, and other facts, like its shape (more egg-like than spherical), and the consistency of its surface (dusty but firm), were confirmed only recently. With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing this year, and NASA preparing to return to the lunar surface for the first time in decades, it’s time to brush up on these facts about the Moon—from colorful names for full moons to the first landing on the dark side of the Moon.

1. The Moon may have formed when a giant object in the solar system hit Earth.

Scientists aren't in total agreement on how the Moon formed, but the most widely accepted theory is the giant impact hypothesis. According to this theory, an object the size of Mars called Theia collided with Earth 4.5 billion years ago when the solar system was still new and chaotic. The impact dislodged matter from Earth’s crust, and the debris attached to whatever was left of Theia through the force of gravity.

This scenario would explain why the Moon is made up of lighter elements found in Earth’s outer layer, but it still leaves some questions unanswered. If the giant impact hypothesis is correct, about 60 percent of the Moon should consist of the impact object. Instead, its composition is almost identical to that of Earth. There are alternative explanations: one posits that the Moon is a space object that got caught in Earth’s orbit, and another one suggests the Moon and Earth formed at the same time, but none is as popular as the giant impact theory.

2. The Moon is the perfect size for solar eclipses.

Moon covering sun during solar eclipse.
Masashi Hara/Getty Images

A lucky set of circumstances make total solar eclipses, as seen from Earth, possible. The Moon is just the right size and distance from our planet to appear as the same size as the Sun in the sky. When the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, it covers the Sun perfectly with an impressive corona illuminating its edges. If it were any smaller or farther from Earth, it would look like a blot on the Sun during a solar eclipse.

3. A full Moon has different nicknames in different seasons.

A full moon can have many colorful names, but they don’t always describe a special celestial phenomenon. Some are used to refer to a full moon that appears during a certain time of year. A harvest moon, which is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox, is the best-known example, but there are many others, including a wolf moon (first full moon of January), strawberry moon (June), and sturgeon moon (August).

4. It’s the largest moon in the solar system relative to its planet.

Our Moon isn’t the largest in the solar system (that distinction goes to Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s 79 moons), but it is the biggest in relation to the planet it orbits. With a diameter of 2159 miles and a surface area of 14.6 million square miles, the Moon is a little more than one-fourth the size of Earth. The dwarf planet Pluto has an even smaller moon-to-planet ratio. Pluto’s largest moon Charon is nearly the size of its host body, leading some astronomers to refer to the pair as a double-dwarf planet.

5. The Moon is shaped like a lemon.

The Moon may look perfectly round in the night sky, but it’s actually more of an oval shape. It came out wonky billions of years ago when super-hot tidal forces shaped its crust, heating up some areas hotter than others to form a lemon shape rather than a perfect sphere. Gravitational forces from Earth have helped to exaggerate the Moon’s oblong appearance over eons.

6. Scientists thought Moon dust would cause lunar landers to sink.

Lunar module over moon's surface.
NASA/Newsmakers

When preparing to send missions to the Moon, some scientists feared that a thick layer of dust on the body’s surface would cause complications. One of the strongest proponents of the dust theory was Thomas Gold, an astrophysicist at Cornell University. He insisted that the Moon was covered in seas of dust soft and thick enough to swallow a lunar lander. Though the Moon’s surface is dusty, the layer is too thin to cause problems, as the successful landings of the Soviet Luna 9 and the American Surveyor spacecrafts proved in 1966.

7. The Moon is international property.

Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong may have planted an American flag on the Moon in 1969, but it belongs to the world. Countries like the Soviet Union and the U.S. made sure of that at the height of the space race in 1967 when they signed the Outer Space Treaty, a document declaring that the Moon would be a “global commons” and any resources discovered there would be used for the good of the world overall. In keeping with the spirit of the agreement, NASA shared soil samples taken from the Moon with Soviet scientists upon the Apollo 11 mission's return.

8. Humans have left strange things on the Moon.

Since the first people landed on the Moon in 1969, its surface has been home to more than just dust. Earth artifacts left on the Moon by astronauts include two golf balls, an obscene Andy Warhol doodle, and a message from Queen Elizabeth II. Eugene Cernan, Apollo 17 commander and one of the last people to walk on the Moon, traced his daughter’s initials into the soil when he visited in 1972. Without any wind or weather on the Moon, the letters TDC could remain there forever.

9. The "dark side of the Moon" is the result of synchronous rotation.

Even though the Moon is constantly rotating, only one side of it is visible from Earth. This is because the Moon is locked in synchronous rotation. It takes the Moon just as long to complete one full rotation as it does for the body to orbit around the Earth once, so the same side always faces our planet. This isn’t a coincidence—the Earth’s gravitational forces have gradually pulled the tip of the slightly oblong Moon to point toward the planet, creating something called tidal lock.

In January 2019, the Chinese space agency landed the first lunar probe on the unexplored dark side of the Moon. The Chang'e 4 spacecraft sent the first photographs of a massive impact crater on the dark side to Earth, giving scientists their first glimpse of that unknown region.

10. One astronaut was allergic to the Moon.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt discovered the hard way that some people are allergic to Moon matter. Following a survey of a valley in the Sea of Serenity, he climbed back into the crew’s lunar module and tracked in a lot of Moon dust with him. The dust affected him as soon as he removed his spacesuit, triggering red eyes, sneezing fits, and other symptoms that lasted two hours.

11. Humans are going back to the Moon soon.

After completing several manned missions to the Moon, NASA ended the Apollo program in 1972 as budgets tightened and public interest waned. That means most people alive today have never witnessed a manned lunar landing, but now, following a hiatus nearing 50 years, NASA is finally preparing to return to the Moon. The next manned lunar expedition will be ready to launch “no later than the late 2020s,” according to the space agency. One of the goals will be placing a command module, called Gateway, in the Moon’s orbit that astronauts can reuse over multiple missions.

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