The Poison Squad: None But the Brave Can Eat the Fare

This post is part of a series of posts featuring the stories from our STEM Story Project.

Dining Room 2

In the fall of 1902, twelve robust young men in suits gather in the basement of a government building in Washington, D.C. Waiters serve them dinner on fine china, prepared by chefs–courses like chipped beef, turnips, celery on toast, and applesauce. The men eat what they’re served, even though they know that their food is poisoned. They do this every day, three square meals a day, for months.

This is the story of the Poison Squad, an experiment that begins in that basement dining room and continues on our dinner plates today.

PoisonSquadLogoHarvey Washington Wiley is the mastermind behind this experiment. Before you condemn him, you’d be surprised to know that you probably owe him a debt of gratitude. Incidentally, Wiley is the founding father of the Food and Drug Administration. The intention of these experiments was not to induce digestive discomfort for its own sake. Rather, they were part of an extensive study on how chemical preservatives in food–before regulations existed–could harm human beings over time. You might cringe at what was once used to keep food “fresh.”

PRX STEM Story Project producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni gave us a closer look inside the story, beyond her radio piece. About diving deep into archival materials, she says,

“I spent hours [at the Library of Congress], reading thousands of [Wiley’s] letters and squinting at his tiny journals.  It is when you know every curve and squiggle of a man’s handwriting that you feel as though you’re starting to get to know him!”

One surprising fact that she discovered while researching the piece was that while Wiley’s experiments contributed so much to food regulation, today’s practices still leave something to be desired:

“…The FDA doesn’t really test food additives anymore.  There are more than five thousand additives commonly found in processed food and most of them haven’t been tested on animals and almost none (except for dietary supplements) have been tested on humans.”

Sruthi sent us some photographs of the Poison Squad, Wiley, and some (how shall I put this?) unconventional tools that were used during the experiments.

William Carter with Wiley and the Poison Squad


Wiley Lab
Wiley in his lab


A letter showing interest in participating


A fecal drying machine

“None but the brave can eat the fare.” Are you brave enough? Full serving of intrigue and radio in this piece. Bon appetit.

All photos: FDA

Listen to all the other PRX STEM Story Project pieces.