48 pages 1 hour read

Deborah Blum

The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide



The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Century is a work of historical nonfiction by American writer Deborah Blum. Blum is a Pulitzer Prize winning science journalist and author of six books. In July of 2015, she became the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and she is the founder of Undark, and online magazine examining topics in science and medicine.

The Poison Squad was published on September 24th, 2019, by Penguin Books. In 2020, it was adapted into a documentary with the same title by the award-winning series American Experience, produced by PBS. This guide refers to the first edition hardcover version of this work.

Content warning: The content of this guide contains brief descriptions of conditions inside slaughterhouses at the turn of the 20th century, as well as descriptions of exploitative manufacturing tactics which endangered, actively harmed, and occasionally resulted in the fatalities of consumers, including children.


In the late 1880s, chemist and physician Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley is appointed Chief Chemist at the United States Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry. The products offered by the newly minted food manufacturing conglomerates in America bear little resemblance to the pure, natural foods Dr. Wiley ate as a boy on his family farm in Indiana. Raised by progressive parents dedicated to their egalitarian values and committed to the pursuit of social justice, the future Father of the Pure Food Movement came to Washington with an unfaltering devotion to his sense of morality and fairness, and an inexorable drive to advocate for those he felt it was his duty to protect.

The migration of citizens from rural areas to urban centers, combined with advances in industrial technology, have created opportunities for corporations seeking to profit from the processing and supply of food. Dr. Wiley begins investigating the contents of these offerings, finding rampant lack of sanitation, deception, counterfeiting, and the use of fillers, additives, and preservatives—all of it unregulated. Over his nearly 30 years as Chief Chemist, Dr. Wiley fought tirelessly as a scientist and advocate for pure food practices as part of a radical, progressive demand on the part of consumers and activists for safe, healthy dining options. His most memorable undertaking was a series of human experiments with the cooperation of several groups of intrepid young men who subjected themselves to dangerous chemicals for the sake of research and the common good. Collectively nicknamed “The Poison Squad,” the results Dr. Wiley garnered from these studies helped to raise awareness among the American public and push legislation which would mandate safe food practices and punish manufacturers who were profiting from the use of subpar, spoiled, rotten, corrupted, and diluted wares which were endangering the American public. Throughout his career, Dr. Wiley fought against enemies and detractors from both within and outside the USDA. His unwavering integrity served as an example and a beacon of hope for those who trusted and relied upon him to improve their quality of life through the changes he sought. The Poison Squad is equal parts a biography of Dr. Wiley and a history of the progression of food safety regulations in the United States; without Dr. Wiley these achievements would not have been possible.

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