The Poison Squad: The US Government Experiment That Saw Volunteers Deliberately Eating Poisons

In 1902, in the basement of the Department of Agriculture’s Office of Chemistry, on what is now Independence Ave., in Washington, D.C., 12 men sat down for a free meal of delicacies prepared by a skilled chef, mixed with an unknown poison.

“The Poison Squad”, as they became known, were a group of volunteers who – in exchange for consuming various potentially toxic preservatives and having their urine and feces collected by the government – received free food during six months. The idea – the brainchild of the Department of Agriculture’s chief chemist, Harvey W. Wiley – was to study “whether or not preservatives should be used, and if so, which preservatives and in what quantities”, and finally to prove that the government should have a national policy on preservatives in food and drink.

The way he decided to do this was to start feeding the volunteers borax, salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate and formaldehyde.

The first subjects gathered at the “hygiene table” in the basement for their trial, weighed themselves and had their pulse and temperature measured, before going to bed for a meal loaded with borax, a common ingredient in household detergents. modern laundry.

The team didn’t know what food contained the poison, or what poison they ate. Initially, borax was slipped into butter, but soon people stopped using it. Then the researchers put it in milk, meat, and coffee, but again the subjects began to avoid these products. Which is understandable, considering they must have tasted a little boraxy.

In the end, they determined that they could put the borax in a capsule to take mid-meal and it would be absorbed through food in the stomach. It must have been weird for someone whose main concern was people’s health, celebrating the fact that he had figured out the best way to poison volunteers, but it was a big step forward for the experiment, which would last five years.

The volunteers – both initial and those who followed them – had given up any right to hold the government responsible for any illness or death (their own) that might result from the poisons. It may sound academic, but the risks they were taking were real, and the experiments only stopped when the chemicals made the volunteers so sick they couldn’t function (e.g. from vomiting, inability to perform work or other stomach aches and nausea). ). It should be emphasized again at this point that the only benefit the men received was free meals. Meals that included a good old dose of formaldehyde.

Before you feel sorry for volunteers, take note their excellent Christmas menu:

“Applesauce. Borax. Soup. Borax. Turkey. Borax. Borax. Canned beans. Sweet potatoes. White potatoes. Turnips. Borax. Ground beef. Cream sauce. Cranberry sauce. Celery. Pickles. Rice milk. Milk. Bread and Butter. Tea. Coffee. A little borax.”

Not a sprout in sight.

Disclosure of menus like this came largely from the volunteers themselves (we guess you have to do something between eating poison, throwing up and subjecting your poo, hair and sweat to government inspection), before they are stopped by Wiley. use a gag. The press was of course very interested in the experience, and soon comedians made poems about it, as if the volunteers did not suffer enough:

“If you ever were to visit the Smithsonian Institute,
Be careful, Professor Wiley does not make you a rookie.
He’s got a lot of guys out there telling him how they feel,
They take a lot of poison every time they eat a meal.
At breakfast, they are given liver cyanide, shaped like a coffin,
For dinner, croque-monsieur, all garnished with crepe;
For supper, arsenic donuts, fried in appetizing shade,
And late at night, they get prussic acid lemonade.

They may get over it, but they will never look alike again.
That kind of bill would drive most men crazy.
Next week he will give them mothballs,
an LA Newburgh, or else plain.
They may get over it, but they will never look alike again.

-Lew Dockstade, “They won’t look alike anymore”

The doses increased over time, from half a gram (0.02 ounce) at the start to 4 grams (0.1 ounce) at the end of the five-year experiment. By the end, they had studied the effects of boric acid and borax, salicylic acid and salicylates, benzoic acid and benzoates, sulfur dioxide and sulfites, formaldehyde, sulphate of copper and saltpetre. Of these, copper sulfate is of particular concern, as eating a lot of the compound can damage blood cells, liver, and kidneys, or even lead to death. Although, as the experiment was designed to find out the safety of various poisons without any accountability to the government, that was basically the point.

The experience eventually led to the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drugs Act, which regulated preservatives deemed safe for human consumption. It was decided that they could be added to food, as long as they were not used to disguise the use of dangerous ingredients.

You might be wondering why only men were allowed to join the Poison Squad. Chivalry? An old-fashioned view that you shouldn’t deliberately poison women? Well, probably not. Wiley was a misogynist, who doubted the brain capacity of women, and called them “savages”. Savages who clearly weren’t ready for that noble male task of receiving a load of poison and seeing if it gave you diarrhea.

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