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]

10 Electrifying Facts About Michael Faraday


This world-changing genius was born into poverty on September 22, 1791. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday refused to let his background stand in his way.


In Faraday's boyhood home, money was always tight. His father, James, was a sickly blacksmith who struggled to support a wife and four children in one of London's poorer outskirts. At age 13, young Faraday started helping the family make ends meet. Bookseller George Ribeau (sometimes spelled Riebau) took him on as an errand boy in 1804, with the teen's primary job being the delivery and recovery of loaned-out newspapers.

Shortly after Faraday's 14th birthday, Ribeau offered him a free apprenticeship. Over the next seven years, he mastered the trade of bookbinding. After hours, Faraday remained in Ribeau's store, hungrily reading many of the same volumes he'd bound together.

Like most lower-class boys, Faraday's formal schooling was very limited. Between those bookshelves, however, he taught himself a great deal—especially about chemistry, physics, and a mysterious force called "electricity."


Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0 

Sir Humphry Davy (above) left a huge mark on science. In the year 1808 alone, the man discovered no less than five elements, including calcium and boron. An excellent public speaker, Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution consistently drew huge crowds. 

Twenty-year-old Faraday attended four of these presentations in 1812, having received tickets from a customer. As Davy spoke, Faraday jotted down detailed notes, which he then compiled and bound into a little book. Faraday sent his 300-page transcript to Davy. Duly impressed, the seasoned scientist eventually hired him as a lab assistant. Later in life, Davy was asked to name the greatest discovery he'd ever made. His answer: "Michael Faraday."

Tension would nevertheless erupt between mentor and protégé. As Faraday's accomplishments began to eclipse his own, Davy accused the younger man of plagiarizing another scientist's work (this rumor was swiftly discredited) and tried to block his admission to the Royal Society.


On September 3, 1821, Faraday built a device that ushered technology into the modern era. One year earlier, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted had demonstrated that when an electric current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is created around it. Faraday capitalized on this revelation. Inside the Royal Society basement, he began what was arguably his most groundbreaking experiment by placing a magnet in the bottom of a mercury-filled glass container. Dangling overhead was a wire, which Faraday connected to a battery. Once an electric current was conducted through the wire, it began rotating around the magnet.

Faraday had just built the world's first electric motor. How could he possibly top himself? By building the world's first electric generator. His first experiment was comprised of a simple ring of wires and cotton through which he passed a magnet. By doing so, he found that a current was generated. To this day, most electricity is made using the same principles.



By today's standards, his early models would look shabby. Made via pressing two sheets of rubber together, Faraday's balloons were used to contain hydrogen during his experiments. Faraday created his first in 1824 and was quick to praise the bag's “considerable ascending power.” Toy manufacturers started distributing these the following year.


In 1823, Faraday sealed a sample of chlorine hydrate inside a V-shaped tube. As he heated one end and cooled the other simultaneously, the scientist noticed that a peculiar yellow liquid was starting to form. Curious, he broke open the tube. Without warning, a sudden, violent explosion sent glass shards flying everywhere. Mercifully uninjured, he smelled a strong scent of chlorine in the air.

It didn't take him very long to figure out what had happened. Inside the tube, pressure was building, which liquefied the gas. Upon puncturing the glass, he'd released this pressure and, afterwards, the liquid reverted into its gaseous state. This sudden evaporation came with an interesting side-effect: it cooled down the surrounding air. Quite unintentionally, Faraday thus set the stage for the very first ice-making machines and refrigeration units.


Britain's industrialization came at a malodorous price. As London grew more crowded during the mid-1800s, garbage and fecal matter were dumped into the River Thames with increasing regularity. Naturally, the area didn't smell like a rose. In 1855, Faraday penned an oft-reproduced open letter about the problem, imploring the authorities to take action. “If we neglect this subject,” he wrote, “we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof for the folly of our carelessness.”

Just as Faraday predicted, a broiling summer forced Londoners of all stripes to hold their noses. Dubbed “the Great Stink,” the warmer months of 1858 sent the Thames' rancid odor wafting all over the city. Parliament hastily responded with a comprehensive sewage reform bill. Gradually, the putrid stench began to dissipate.


Alexander Blaikley, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Faraday understood the importance of making science accessible to the public. In 1825, while employed by the Royal Society, he spearheaded an annual series that's still going strong today. That holiday season, engineer John Millington delivered a set of layman-friendly lectures on “natural philosophy.” Every year thereafter (excluding 1939–1942 because of WWII), a prominent scientist has been invited to follow in his footsteps. Well-known Christmas lecturers include David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Richard Dawkins (1991). Faraday himself was the presenter on no less than 19 occasions.


Towards the end of his life, Faraday's lack of formal education finally caught up with him. An underprivileged childhood had rendered him mathematically illiterate, a severe handicap for a professional scientist. In 1846, he hypothesized that light itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon, but because Faraday couldn't support the notion with mathematics, it wasn't taken seriously. Salvation for him came in the form of a young physicist named James Clerk Maxwell. Familial wealth had enabled Maxwell to pursue math and—in 1864—he released equations [PDF] that helped prove Faraday's hunch.


Michael Faraday

At the age of 48, Faraday's once-sharp memory started faltering. Stricken by an illness that rendered him unable to work for three years, he wrestled with vertigo, unsteadiness, and other symptoms. Following this "extended vacation" [PDF], he returned to the Royal Society, where he experimented away until his early 70s.

However, Faraday was still prone to inexplicable spurts of sudden giddiness, depression, and extreme forgetfulness. “[My] bad memory,” he wrote, “both loses recent things and sometimes suggests old ones as new.” Nobody knows what caused this affliction, though some blame it on overexposure to mercury.


Fittingly, the father of modern physics regarded Faraday as a personal hero. Once, upon receiving a book about him, Einstein remarked, “This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved.”

Fossilized Fat Shows 550-Million-Year-Old Sea Creature May Have Been the World's First Animal

Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

A bizarre sea creature whose fossils look like a cross between a leaf and a fingerprint may be Earth's oldest known animal, dating back 558 million years.

As New Scientist reports, researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) made a fortunate find in a remote region of Russia: a Dickinsonia fossil with fat molecules still attached. These odd, oval-shaped creatures were soft-bodied, had rib structures running down their sides, and grew about 4.5 feet long. They were as “strange as life on another planet,” researchers wrote in the abstract of a new paper published in the journal Science.

Another variety of fossil
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

Although Dickinsonia fossils were first discovered in South Australia in 1946, researchers lacked the organic matter needed to classify this creature. "Scientists have been fighting for more than 75 years over what Dickinsonia and other bizarre fossils of the Edicaran biota were: giant single-celled amoeba, lichen, failed experiments of evolution, or the earliest animals on Earth,” senior author Jochen Brocks, an associate professor at ANU, said in a statement.

With the discovery of cholesterol molecules—which are found in almost all animals, but not in other organisms like bacteria and amoebas—scientists can say that Dickinsonia were animals. The creatures swam the seas during the Ediacaran Period, 635 million to 542 million years ago. More complex organisms like mollusks, worms, and sponges didn’t emerge until 20 million years later.

The fossil with fat molecules was found on cliffs near the White Sea in an area of northwest Russia that was so remote that researchers had to take a helicopter to get there. Collecting the samples was a death-defying feat, too.

“I had to hang over the edge of a cliff on ropes and dig out huge blocks of sandstone, throw them down, wash the sandstone, and repeat this process until I found the fossils I was after,” lead author Ilya Bobrovskiy of ANU said. Considering that this find could change our understanding of Earth’s earliest life forms, it seems the risk was worth it.

[h/t New Scientist]