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Conversations about Science Communication and Communicating Science


S11:E06, “The Poison Squad” edition, with Deborah Blum (video)

Posted by jnshaumeyer on 16 October 2018

Streamed live on 4 October 2018.

By the end of nineteenth century, buying food in American was dangerous–sometimes deadly. “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 didn’t happen by accident; food manufacturers knowingly used poisons and non-food adulterants, sometimes as preservatives, sometimes just to cheat the customer and increase profits.

Against the powerful forces of food and drink manufacturers trying to quash any form of governmental regulation, come the somewhat reluctant crusader Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University who, in 1883, was named chief chemist of the Agriculture Department.

Therein lies a tale that includes unprecedented experiments on food additives, shocking revelations, intransigent politicians, and implacable food and drink manufacturers, but finally led to the passing of the Food and Drug Act of 1906–then the troubles really began!

This fascinating–at times disgusting–and cautionary tale is engagingly told by Pulitzer Prize winner author, and director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, Deborah Blum. She was our guest, and her book The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century our topic, for this episode of “Read Science!”

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