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]

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Live Smarter
Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”