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

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockFeb 9 2022, 10:43 UTC
The Poison Squad

The Poison Squad in the room where they ate their delicious poison. Image credit: Public Domain via U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In 1902, in the basement of the Agriculture Department's Bureau of Chemistry, on what is now Independence Ave., in Washington, D.C, 12 men sat down to a free meal of fine food prepared by a skilled chef, laced with an unknown poison.

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"The Poison Squad," as they became known, was a group of volunteers who – in return for eating various potentially poisonous preservatives and having their urine and fecal matter collected by the government – would get fed free food for six months. The idea – brainchild of Chief chemist at the Agriculture Department, Harvey W. Wiley - was to study "whether preservatives should ever be used or not, and if so, what preservatives and in what quantities," and ultimately to prove that the government should have a national policy on preservatives in food and drinks.

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

The first subjects gathered at the "hygienic table" in the basement for their trial, weighed themselves, and measured their pulse rate and temperature, before tucking down for a meal crammed full of borax, a common ingredient in modern-day laundry detergent.

The squad did not know which food contained the poison, nor what poison they were eating. Initially, the borax was slipped into the butter, but soon the men stopped using it. Then the researchers put it in the milk, meat, and coffee, but again the subjects began to avoid those products. Which is understandable, given how they must have tasted a bit boraxy.

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In the end, they determined that they could put the borax in a capsule to be taken mid-meal and that it would be absorbed by the food in the stomach. It must have been weird for someone whose primary concern was people's health celebrating the fact that they'd determined the best way to poison volunteers, but it was a big step forward for the experiment, which would go on for five years.

The volunteers – both initial and those that came after them – had signed away any rights to hold the government responsible for any illness or death (theirs) that might result from the poisons. This might seem academic, but the risks they were taking on were real, and the experiments only stopped when the chemicals made volunteers so ill that they couldn't function (e.g. through vomiting, the inability to perform work, or other stomach aches and nausea). It's worth stressing again at this point, that the only benefit that the men were being paid was free meals. Meals that included a big old dose of formaldehyde.

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

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"Apple Sauce. Borax. Soup. Borax. Turkey. Borax. Borax. Canned Stringed Beans. Sweet Potatoes. White Potatoes. Turnips. Borax. Chipped Beef. Cream Gravy. Cranberry Sauce. Celery. Pickles. Rice Pudding. Milk. Bread and Butter. Tea. Coffee. A Little Borax."

Not a sprout in sight.

Disclosure of menus like this largely came from the volunteers themselves (we guess you have to do something in between eating poison, vomiting, and submitting your poop, hair, and sweat for government inspection), before they were stopped by Wiley using a gag order. The press were, of course, extremely interested in the experiment, and soon comedians were making poems out of it, as if the volunteers weren't suffering enough:

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"If ever you should visit the Smithsonian Institute,
Look out that Professor Wiley doesn’t make you a recruit.
He’s got a lot of fellows there that tell him how they feel,
They take a batch of poison every time they eat a meal.
For breakfast they get cyanide of liver, coffin shaped,
For dinner, undertaker’s pie, all trimmed with crepe;
For supper, arsenic fritters, fried in appetizing shade,
And late at night they get a prussic acid lemonade.

They may get over it, but they’ll never look the same.
That kind of a bill of fare would drive most men insane.
Next week he’ll give them moth balls,
a LA Newburgh, or else plain.
They may get over it, but they’ll never look the same.

-Lew Dockstade, “They’ll Never Look the Same” 

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Doses increased as time went on, from half a gram (0.02 ounces) at the beginning to 4 grams (0.1 ounces) by the conclusion 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 sulphites, formaldehyde, copper sulfate, and saltpeter. Of these, copper sulfate is especially concerning, as eating a lot of the compound can cause damage to blood cells, the liver, and kidneys, or even result in death. Although, as the experiment was designed to find out the safety of various poisons with no liability for the government, this was basically the point. 

The experiment eventually led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which regulated preservatives that had been found to be safe for human consumption. It was ruled they could be added to food, as long as it wasn't used to cover up the use of ingredients that were unsafe.

You may be wondering why it was only men who 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 referred to them as "savages". Savages that clearly weren't up for that noble male task of being given a buttload of poison, and seeing if it makes you get diarrhea.


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