NonFiction Friday: The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum

My favorite nonfiction writer is back with another book on poisons! The Poison Squad was slow to grab my attention but once it did I could not put it down.


From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times-bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change

By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. “Milk” might contain formaldehyde, most often used to embalm corpses. Decaying meat was preserved with both salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical, and borax, a compound first identified as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry, and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by “embalmed milk” every year. Citizens–activists, journalists, scientists, and women’s groups–began agitating for change. But even as protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then, in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the agriculture department, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, “The Poison Squad.”

Over the next thirty years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning indefatigably for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair, whose fiction revealed the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry J. Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land, as “Dr. Wiley’s Law.”

Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying “David and Goliath” tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today. from Goodreads.

A yellow cover that looks like an old newspaper features the title “The Poison Squad, One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusad for Food Safety and the Turn of the Twentieth Century.”


Deborah Blum’s book The Poisoner’s Handbook is my favorite nonfiction book. It is the book I credit with bringing nonfiction into my regular reading life. In Handbook, the depth of her research does not drown out the story-telling and the book reads like a procedural crime drama. Would The Poison Squad rise to my high expectations?

The Poison Squad is largely based on the life’s work of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley and his tireless efforts for truth in labelling, food safety, and consumer protection. Dr. Wiley was named the chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1883 at a time when preservatives and additives in food were used widely without any notification to the consumer. Bacteria growth in food was common due to a lack of refrigeration in the food chain and outbreaks of ptomaine and cholera were common. Preservatives were also sickening people as businesses tried to save their products with formaldehyde. Other businesses were simply trying to make their product more cheaply by using saccharine, sulfurous acid, copper and other additives. There were no labels for food and no control over claims made by companies.

Meanwhile, in 1904 more than 20,000 children under age two died from drinking milk that was either filthy with bacteria or poisoned with formaldehyde. Narcotics were indiscriminately used in products and medicines. Upton Sinclair attempted to showcase the horrors of Chicago’s slaughterhouses in The Jungle. And all of this death, sickness, and addiction were directly attributed to a lack of regulation and a complete lack of truth in labelling.

I was struck time and again by the political machinations, and the rampant misuse of information and the arguments made to protect the businesses. In response to the regulation of “medicines” which were, in fact, 20-42.6% alcohol the Proprietary Association even made the claim that, “If the Federal Government should regulate the Interstate traffic in drugs on the basis of their therapeutic value, why not regulate traffic in theology by excluding from transportation all theological books which Dr. Wiley and his assistants, upon examination, should find to be ‘misleading in any particular.'” So….demanding truth in labelling is exactly the same as regulating religion?

“Now let the food adulterer quail, for we have the women on our side.”

I was surprised how prominent the role of women was to winning the fight for pure food at a time before most women had the right to vote. At the time, only four states allowed women to vote. Certainly, those women used their vote for pure food. Like the club women in Idaho who met with every one of the state’s political candidates to say that they would vote in a bloc against any who failed to support pure-food legislation. While suffragettes, including Wiley’s own wife, marched for the national right to vote, housewives and women’s magazines became key to turning the tide. Companies may have wanted to save money at the expense of the health of their consumers but they needed people to buy their product. And women weren’t buying.

Even when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food legislation into law in 1906, the fight wasn’t over. Corporations, lobbyists, and long court battles all wore down the application of the law. Loopholes existed, others were made, and one by one the battles for pure food continued to be lost. Only through Dr. Wiley’s tireless efforts was any ground gained.

Admittedly, this book is not as easy to read as The Poisoners Handbook. The magic of that book is the manner in which Blum delivers the poisons and the forensic detection. The nature of Wiley’ work, two-steps forward, one-step back, makes for a more frustrating journey. But Blum found a true hero in Dr. Wiley. Named a chevalier by France and adored by every woman that worked in his building, Dr. Wiley is an feminist working for the common good who refused to give up.

How many times have we complained that our food is “unhealthy” and that, if we only ate like our grandparents / great-grandparents, all of the common ailments and illnesses of modern times would melt away? I hear this line trotted out time and again. Blum’s book makes it clear that from 1883 until 1937 “unhealthy” is vastly preferable to deadly. All it will take for us to return to this time, when buying products in a store didn’t guarantee their safety, would be to remove the rules and regulations that place the burden to keep consumers safe on the manufacturers.

Tell me, please!

Who is your favorite nonfiction writer?



5 thoughts on “NonFiction Friday: The Poison Squad by Deborah Blum

Add yours

  1. That’s it, you’ve convinced me! I’m adding “The Poison Squad” to my TBR right away! I knew that copper arsenite (you know, like arsenic?) was used to create a pigment called Scheele’s Green that was used to color hard candies in the 1800s, but I had no idea of the EXTENT and DEPTH of how poisonous food was back then. Also, I love stories about principled individuals fighting back against corporate greed. This is such a great review; you write very well and managed to convey a lot of information without giving away too much. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, my goodness! I can’t tell you how much your comment means to me! Thank you so so much.

      The Poisoner’s Handbook (same author) is one of my hands down favorite nonfiction and while this was excellent, it took a bit to get going. I hope you get it and you read it because it is great fun to bring up these tidbits at random moments!


  2. The Poisoner’s Handbook also sounds amazing! I haven’t dabbled much in mysteries that do a lot of chemically-focused forensic science (am I saying that right?) but it sounds absolutely riveting. I have a friend who I think would really like this book, and I’m going to badger them about it ASAP.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooooh – I hope they enjoy it! Both books are a fascinating mix of history, mystery, science and just general trivia. Both books have made me a super fun (or annoying!) dinner party companion and trivia teammate. I just love them!


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