Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906

Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906

by James Harvey Young


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691608877
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1004
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 898,104
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Pure Food

Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906

By James Harvey Young


Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04763-8


A "Murderous Traffic" in Imported Drugs

The cool-blooded, deliberate, studied, and fatal deception practiced in articles designed for the relief of suffering and disease, can admit of no palliation — can find no excuse.

— House Report 644, 30th Congress, 1st Session, 1848

Preview: Toward the Food and Drugs Act of 1906

Federal regulation of food and drugs in the United States began, in a broad, across-the-board way, with the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. The preliminaries to that law, however, ran far back to the time beyond memory when unscrupulous bakers and vintners began to adulterate bread and to water wine. Such practices persisted through the centuries, and rulers issued various decrees aimed at curtailing deceptions. Legislatures in the British American colonies imitated statutes earlier enacted in the mother country seeking to protect the purses and safeguard the health of their citizens.

After the American Revolution, through the first half of the nineteenth century, states and towns renewed such laws sporadically. Officials of the federal government, however, did not pose the question whether the quality of food eaten by the American people or of medicines with which they were dosed might fall within federal responsibility and jurisdiction. Not until the Mexican War did a crisis over medications for the troops prompt Congress, without fanfare or delay, to enact a law aimed at banning adulterated drugs offered for import. Three decades passed before Congress began to consider a general food and drug measure, and almost three decades more before the pure-food campaign came to fruition in the 1906 law. Seven Cs underlay the enactment of this pioneering statute: change, complexity, competition, crusading, coalescence, compromise, and catastrophe.

Change suggests the "research revolution." Scientific discovery accelerated during the last third of the nineteenth century, nurturing technology. These forces, interacting with all of society's institutions, brought countless planned and unforeseen consequences, not least those involving food and drugs. "The research revolution," Hunter Dupree has said, "is a social phenomenon, and hence of many orders greater complexity than the nucleus of the atom."

The second C stands for complexity. All concerns of humankind grew more complex during these turbulent years, and a particular kind of complexity became wedded early to the question of how the federal government might confront deceptions and hazards in the food and drug supply. Almost from the start, bills proposed in Congress were omnibus bills, encompassing food, drink, and drugs. All food and drink and virtually all drugs entered the body through the mouth, and all were subject to similar adulterations. So it was natural to face the problem all at once. Britain had done so, and its example provided precedent. Many interest groups were potentially subject to an omnibus law, with producing and processing units located in every congressional district. A long and tortuous legislative process became inevitable.

Competition in the marketplace, the third C, lay behind the earliest omnibus bills. By a sort of Gresham's law, adulterated foods that could be sold cheaply threatened to drive out sounder fare. Alarmed, the more reputable wing of the expanding processed-food industry appealed for help to Congress. Farmers complained too, upset by a new invention from France, oleomargarine, which posed a grave threat to butter. Producers aggrieved by adulterating rivals could bring omnibus bills before Congress but could not get them passed, for competitors spoke with different voices, all heard in Washington. Early legislative success crowned a few particular bills, which stuck to a single subject — drug imports and oleomargarine, for example — and received impassioned support from agitated pressure groups, physicians and pharmacists in the case of drugs, dairy farmers in the case of margarine.

The public had not yet become much aroused. The achievement of this required crusading, the fourth C. When the early omnibus bills first appeared in Congress, the loudest crusading voice came from a Massachusetts lawyer, George T. Angell. Angell thought business-sponsored omnibus bills too unmindful of the consumer, whereas businessmen thought Angell a devilish alarmist. Thus, early developed a polarized controversy that has been recurrent ever since.

The major figure in the pure-food crusade came to be Harvey Washington Wiley. A chemist and physician, Wiley became in 1883 head of the Division of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture. He made a study of adulteration his bureau's principal business and early saw the need for a protective law. Sensing a stalemate in Congress, Wiley successfully expanded the coalition espousing food and drug reform. He consolidated his allies and recruits — segments of business, state agricultural chemists, physicians, women's club members, reform-minded journalists — into an effective pressure group. Coalescence is the fifth C. Wiley and his supporters turned the pure-food cause into a crusade broadening public awareness.

Even though one bill passed the Senate in 1892, divided business interests and constitutional scruples kept omnibus bills from becoming law. Compromise, the sixth C, offered the traditional American route to legislative success. During the last years of the century, Wiley tried in three national voluntary pure-food congresses, composed of delegates from widely diverse interests, to work out in the private sector a consensus broad enough to transfer into the Congress and thus secure enactment of a law. Delegates labored diligently and made much progress, but not enough. Some commercial differences seemed too deep and bitter to bridge. As the new century dawned, efforts at compromise continued, but again in their customary setting, the halls of Congress. By this time the majority of food and drug processors and distributors wanted a national law, or at least recognized its inevitability, and each element lobbied to shape the law so as to retain or gain competitive advantage.

As compromise continued, crusading accelerated. In the end, however, it took the seventh C, catastrophe, to fuse a final compromise that became the 1906 law. That perceived disaster came in reaction to Upton Sinclair's socialist novel The Jungle; his few pages describing the filthy conditions in which the nation's meat supply was prepared turned the public's stomach, cut sales in half, angered President Theodore Roosevelt, and pushed through the Congress both a meat-inspection bill and the food and drug law.

The pure-food campaign leading to the 1906 law, here sketchily mapped without taking note of controversies in interpretation, warrants deliberate exploration. The significant point of departure is the law of 1848 by which Congress sought to protect the nation's soldiers and citizens from the consequences of adulterated drugs imported from overseas.

The Drug Importation Act of 1848

A week before President James K. Polk proclaimed the treaty ending the war with Mexico, he signed the Drug Importation Act of 1848.7 The war and the law were not unrelated. During the brief debate given the bill by members of the Congress, Representative Washington Hunt of New York noted that "the importation of deleterious drugs has been very injurious to our army during the war, ... and hence some action ... was loudly demanded." Adulteration, insisted a House committee report, had forced army doctors to prescribe "herculean portions of active medicines" to the "gallant troops" and was itself a major factor in the "lamentable mortality."

Adulteration of drugs, in fact, warranted only a very small share of the blame for troop mortality in the deadliest war in American history. For every fighting man killed in action, seven died of disease. The death rate from disease was no per year per thousand soldiers, diarrhea and dysentery striking the severest blows, with yellow fever, respiratory ailments, and cholera also significant killers. An inadequate supply of medical officers, inattention to camp sanitation, improper clothing for the extremes of weather, and an unbalanced diet played primary roles in the high death rates during this prebacteriological war. Troops were treated with medicines standard in civilian practice and believed efficacious by both doctors and patients: alcohol, opium, camphor, and powerful purgatives like calomel, jalap, and rhubarb. From a later perspective it is clear that these drugs, even if unadulterated, could not have done much to hold the grim reaper at bay. Yet, at the time, suspicion of adulteration's part in the lamentable disaster exercised members of the Congress.

While patriotism helped speed enactment of an innovative law, longstanding concern on the part of American pharmacists and physicians about the purity of the drugs they compounded and prescribed had led to the measure's introduction. A century earlier the Boston News-Letter had reflected complaint about persistent importation of "a very bad Sort of Rhubarb," sold "for the best." Increasing worry about adulteration helped stimulate many private initiatives. The perceived dangers of spurious drugs underlay the publication in 1820 of the first Pharmacopoeia of the United States. Control of drug quality furnished a major motivation for the establishment of the nation's first two colleges of pharmacy, in Philadelphia in 1820 and in New York eight years later. Thus professional institutions were erected that could furnish support for law when individual endeavor seemed not to be making headway at combating the flow of shoddy drugs deliberately dispatched from abroad to American shores. "Good enough for America," asserted British pharmacy leader and member of Parliament Jacob Bell, was a phrase that had "long been applied to designate articles reduced by decay or ingenuity to American price."

American professional journals, growing in number during the early nineteenth century, began to make clear that Europeans also suffered from adulterated drugs. What was more promising news to doctors and druggists, the journals reported that European scientists worked constantly to improve means for detecting such sophistications. Alexandre Busses notable French treatise of 1829, for example, received careful American review.

American scientists adopted the ever-improving European techniques of analytical chemistry — as in due course they would employ the achromatic microscope — which advanced the art of detecting adulterants beyond the centuries-old organoleptic tests of inspection by the unaided sight, taste, smell, and feel. A major landmark was published in New York strategically two years before the 1848 law, Lewis Caleb Beck's Adulteration of Various Substances Used in Medicine and the Arts, with the Means of Detecting Them: Intended as a Manual for the Physician, the Apothecary, and the Artisan. This treatise, according to a modern scholar, "seems to have been the first comprehensive work in English" on the subject.

A life filled with diligent scientific endeavor preceded Beck's preparation of his adulteration volume. Soon after acquiring his medical degree, at the age of nineteen, by an apprenticeship in Schenectady and study at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, Beck went to St. Louis. Instead of setting up a practice, he roamed Illinois and Missouri, studying their botany, geology, climate, health, and social customs, acquiring information that he assembled into an impressive Gazetteer. At the request of the New York governor, Beck assessed the advancing cholera epidemic of 1832. Beck settled down to permanent connection with both Rutgers College, as professor of chemistry and natural history, and Albany Medical College, as lecturer on pharmacy and chemistry.

Soon after publishing a chemistry textbook in 1831, Dr. Beck was chosen by the New York legislature to investigate potash manufacture in the state, an industry with an annual value of a million dollars. Beck found that much potash reaching the market showed unmistakable evidence of adulteration. Producers frequently added "various substances, ... ostensibly for the sole purpose of facilitating manufacture, but which really have the effect of increasing the weight of the resulting mass at the expense of its purity. "Such fraud, Beck argued, jeopardized valuable markets overseas."

The potash assignment, as well as his experience with medicines as a practicing physician, turned Beck's attention to the theme of drug adulteration. With characteristic intensity, thoroughness, and dispatch, he mastered the growing body of literature, foreign and domestic, applied his skills as an analytical chemist, and wrote his treatise.

In alphabetical order Beck discussed the medications that physicians employed, giving both common and pharmacopoeial names, describing common adulterants, and suggesting organoleptic and analytical tests by which to expose them. In his preface Beck cited the authorities he relied on, in addition to his own experiments. He also acknowledged the limitations of his work. He did not intend to provide directions for "accurate quantitative analysis," just simple instructions by which "even ... the tyro in chemistry" might determine "the nature" of adulterants "and in some cases an approximation of the proportions in which they exist." Beck included mineral remedies, such as calomel and tartar emetic, and paid heed to the recently discovered alkaloids of traditional botanicals, morphine, quinine, and strychnine. Mainly, however, he treated vegetable remedies, running the gamut from asafetida through dragon's blood and false dragon's blood to rhubarb. Rhubarb continued to be badly adulterated, its worm holes often filled with a paste concocted from powdered rhubarb and mucilage.

"There is no article in which frauds have been more extensively practiced," Beck asserted, "than in opium." Even of the best Turkish opium in the market, a quarter part usually consisted of impurities. One of Beck's sources stated that not a single cake of opium left the Near East that had not been mixed, when soft and fresh, with crushed grapes. Other adulterants included extract of licorice, gum arabic, aloes, sand, small stones, and pieces of lead. The cruder deceptions might be easily detected, but subtler ones that often deprived opium entirely of its active principle proved almost impossible to discover. Only "by actual trial upon the system" could the proportion of morphine, and hence the quality of a sample of opium, be determined.

Beck's careful, sober volume, Ernst W. Stieb believes, "provided the necessary documentation leading to" the 1848 law. Getting legislation on the books, however, required more than dispassionate chemical analysis. It demanded also a sense of outrage that spurred pressure upon the Congress by organized groups whose voices warranted heeding. Drug adulteration seemed to be worsening as the decade of the forties wore on. In New York City, whose port received three-quarters of the nation's drug imports, prominent pharmacists associated with the New York College of Pharmacy, especially John Milhau and George Coggeshall, sensed that adulteration had assumed alarming proportions. They came to believe a federal law might be needed to achieve reform. Rallying physicians, including the membership of the New York Academy of Medicine, behind their campaign, the coalition also managed to place a physician ally in a crucial place, as examiner of drug imports passing through customs at the port of New York.


Excerpted from Pure Food by James Harvey Young. Copyright © 1989 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • Acknowledgments, pg. xiii
  • I. A "Murderous Traffic" in Imported Drugs, pg. 1
  • II. Mercury, Meat, and Milk, pg. 18
  • III. A Broad Concern Brought before the Congress, pg. 40
  • IV. "This Greasy Counterfeit", pg. 66
  • V. The Impact of Technology on Diet and Dosing, pg. 95
  • VI. Initiative for a Law Resumed, pg. 125
  • VII. Progress toward a Law, pg. 146
  • VIII. Combining and Crusading for a Law, pg. 174
  • IX. Prelude to Victory, pg. 204
  • X. The Jungle and the Meat-Inspection Amendments, pg. 221
  • XI. The Law Secured, pg. 253
  • XII. The Law Interpreted, pg. 273
  • Index, pg. 297

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