The failure to enforce the pure food laws established by Harvey Wiley and the U.S. Congress during the turn of the last century allowed harmful additives to be a part of the manufactured foods system in the U.S. This is believed to be the root of most cancers experienced today by the U.S. population. Before these additives were in the food supply cancer was rare amongst the U.S. population. Harvey Wiley warned about this threat of increased disease via his writings and experimentation. In fact, many copies of his book, “The History Of A Crime Against The Pure Food Law” mysteriously vanished. Could it have been an attempt by the manufacturers to hide the dangers of their practices? This is a hidden part of American history and now is a great time to tell the story.
The story opens in 1926 at the 20th Anniversary dinner of the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Law. The storyline is woven from the accounts of Harvey Wiley, our hero, as he gives his speech and Walter Williams, the contrite businessman that originally collaborated with the scheming young lawyer, Solicitor McCabe, to oust Harvey and his Act. But where did Harvey gain such passion for this cause, and where did the businessman and lawyer get their antagonism for it? A historical character already vague and increasingly curious to the modern audience, Harvey Wiley’s story encompasses the remarkable complexities of his lifetime involving science, politics, nutrition and cultural change in the United States of America – as well as shed light on the story behind our current FDA’s major downfall in protecting the people.
“That man was ahead of his time,” the old businessman Walter Williams quips to the naive young Reporter at the back of the room. “But the more obvious it becomes that he was right, the less people listen to him.” The chatter in the classy, sparkling dining room of the Waldorf-Astoria dies down as the audience turns its attention to a distinguished gentleman at the head table.
“It’s only been twenty years, Harvey. That’s young for a law, don’t you think?” mentions the lovely Mrs. Anna Kelton Wiley, at least thirty years younger than her husband. Still stately at the advanced age of 82, Harvey Wiley, our hero, graciously tells his story once more…the story behind one of modern America’s most complacent tragedies.
“Twenty years have elapsed since the law was passed,” says Harvey, his style of speaking as enrapturing as ever. “And, if I can state it as briefly as possible, will recall the events that led to that complex yet ignored history. When there is so much progress, people tend to forget.”
Flash back to St. Louis, Missouri in year 1882. Harvey Wiley, a chemistry teacher in his late 40’s, is giving a speech at the Sorghum Growers’ Convention. Harvey has the opportunity to speak with Commissioner of Agriculture Dr. George B. Loring about an issue he is deeply concerned about in the increasingly industrial age: Increased industry results in a demand for a nearly mechanical production of food. The manufacturers are beginning to resort to the use of toxic preservatives (i.e., formaldehyde in milk, sodium benzoate and copper sulfate in canned goods, sulfur dioxide in dried fruits…), adulteration and misbranding. It will become slowly but surely more difficult for people to provide safely for their families as this unnatural revolution takes place. Commissioner Loring is so impressed by Harvey’s work that he secures an offer for him to become Chief Chemist of the United States Department of Agriculture. Harvey arrives at the archaic Washington, D.C. of the late 19th century, bearing the responsibility of being a high ranking agricultural scientist challenged with maintaining diplomacy and resolve despite changing Presidential administrations. His days get busier, but he refuses to let go of his desire to reform the nation’s chaotic food and drug industries.
Becoming restless and determined, Harvey Wiley finally decides there is ample evidence for presenting the case of the nation’s health to its leaders. “So far there has been too much argument about the effect of chemical preservatives on health,” he says, addressing a conference of delegates debating about food regulation. “I propose to find out by scientific experimentation what is the truth about a question of such vital concern to the consumers of the nation. Someday we will have a law,”. His confidence mysteriously infuriates an unimpressed audience member at the back of the room – George McCabe, a suave young lawyer ambitious to become the most powerful legal official in the USDA. How dare Dr. Wiley propose a significant law without consulting him first? The Scottish-born Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson holds McCabe in high esteem, repeatedly following his advice in dealings with Chief Chemist Harvey Wiley, not realizing the increasing grudge he has against him.
As the late 1890’s roll to an end, Harvey is in his 50’s and far from family and close friends – apparently a confirmed bachelor. Surprisingly, at this wearying time in his life he meets a beautiful young woman named Anna Kelton. He is immediately smitten with her poise and dignity, which fully embody all the charms he scientifically described in a humorous poem he wrote in a Harvard Laboratory that portrayed his “Ideal Woman” – which, as a man of high standards, he previously presumed he would never find. The seeds of their romance are sown…though she happens to be 33 years younger him. The script also follows Anna Kelton’s life to add another dimension to the story: American society’s view of the crucial issue, including the involvement that women had in it.
Being the honest scientist that he is, Harvey, along with his capable and discerning assistant W.D. Bigelow, conducts experiments to further validate his convictions. A group of young men volunteer to test the consequences of consuming tainted foods. The studies of “The Poison Squad” draw much attention from the press, and Harvey and W.D. Bigelow have to struggle with their new publicity. As usual, McCabe is still trying to get Dr. Wiley out of the way, and this time he incites Secretary Wilson to assign Harvey to the jury at the World Expo in Paris, France, where he ends up meeting with his scientific rival, Ira Remsen. This puts a road block on Harvey’s plans, as well as forces Anna to lose her position as his secretary. They only occasionally see each other throughout the next decade.
Meanwhile, Bigelow and their friends in Congress, Representative Mann, Representative Hepburn and Senator Heyburn repeatedly come before the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee to further the cause of the pure food and drugs act. Several opposing scientists and businessmen come before the committee, including Walter Williams. When Harvey returns, his excellent analytical presentation convinces the congressional committee to approve his plan and allow him to help draft the bill – much to Solicitor McCabe’s loathing. But McCabe has friends in Congress too…notably, the pompous Representative Scott who paves the way for his schemes.
The politics of the scenario draw in another catalytical persona of interest: President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt has conflicted with the perfectionist Chief Chemist occasionally, but he is impressed by Harvey’s common sense and integrity and becomes a powerful ally to his cause. Roosevelt signs the Act into Law on June 30, 1906, drawing cheers from all the citizens except some unreasonable businessmen – one of whom is Walter Williams. Williams, ambitious and impatient to have a profitable industry no matter what practice, consults with Solicitor McCabe along with others in his clique to weaken the law.
Solicitor McCabe influences the well-meaning but wavering Secretary Wilson to appoint a board of elite conflicting scientists, headed by none other than Ira Remsen, to counteract the enforcement of the Pure Food and Drug Law in one of the most misunderstood and ignored crimes in American government.
McCabe ultimately constructs a nemesis of convoluted bureaucracy that drives a schism between Harvey Wiley, President Roosevelt and Secretary Wilson, ultimately making himself the superior authority over the law. Once McCabe gains this power, he discards and manipulates prosecutions in order to allow the illegal practices that the careless food and drug industries prefer. Thus begins the complex friction that will haunt Harvey Wiley and the nation forever.
When a court in Harvey’s home State of Indiana begins hearings on a case regarding their manufacturers and the State Board of Health, Harvey and Bigelow are among the government chemists summoned to clarify the dangers of preservatives. Solicitor McCabe issues an order preventing them to testify, which results in the case being brought to the Supreme Court. When Bigelow and one of the manufacturers that abolished sodium benzoate in his products testify the truth, Walter Williams suddenly realizes that he has been on the wrong side. When he withdraws his prosecution and admits that Harvey is right, Solicitor McCabe is furious.
Though he could retreat from his lost and sickening cause, McCabe has for so long fought against Harvey Wiley that his most ambitious desire now is to defeat him. The climax is reached when the Association of Food and Drug Officials convention takes place in Denver, Colorado. Elections are held to determine leaders that will be influential in upholding the Pure Food and Drugs Law. When the wrong candidates are elected due to Solicitor McCabe’s campaigning, the Remsen Board’s faulty science is upheld and support for the Law is undermined.
The worst has arrived for the Pure Food and Drug Law and its staunch founder, Harvey Wiley. The leaders that have gained the most power over the issue have practically silenced the debate in front of the outraged public without a hint of remorse. On top of that, McCabe stabs at Harvey Wiley’s reputation by digging up an obscure legal technicality that accuses him of violating Federal law by increasing a chemist’s per diem salary in the Bureau. Perhaps the only vindication left is the Moss Committee Investigation during which Solicitor McCabe is forced to admit that his decisions have been deliberately antagonistic towards the Chief Chemist.
The honest investigation clearly favors Harvey, but to no avail at the time. It will all be a preserved but untouched record of history as time goes on. Just as Harvey has decided that his service in Washington is dwindling, he happens to run into Anna on a streetcar. He asks to call and proposes that very afternoon.
In 1912, Harvey Wiley resigns from the Bureau of Chemistry. With his new bride, Anna, at his side he moves to the countryside of Virginia where they will raise two sons in the years to come.
Return to the Waldorf-Astoria Dining Room in 1926. Harvey Wiley’s speech is ending.
“If the Bureau of Chemistry had been permitted to enforce the law as it was written and as it tried to do, what would have been the condition now?”
At the back of the room, Walter Williams, remorseful, turns away from the Reporter and leaves.
“The health of our people would be vastly improved and their life greatly extended…” Harvey continues. The indomitable Harvey’s battle has not ended, but the battleground has changed. He bears his frustration with the understanding and warning that neither industry nor government nor science can save a nation. It is the family that must preserve health, strength and values for the future generations.
Now his conviction is understood. Foreseeing the demise of the nation’s health, he continues to write voraciously. Among his many writings is his story of the Pure Food Law in which he portrays one of the elements in history that contributes to the mystery of how the most blessed nation in the world has unnecessarily suffered under its own indulged weakness. Harvey Wiley closes his book with the compassionate hope that one day its audience will remember its responsibility and be moved to action.