Deborah Blum: The Poison Squad

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Thursday August 15

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6:30 PM  –  8:00 PM


American writing's diversity of form is one of its greatest strengths. The Surprise Bookshelf Series celebrates journalism, poetry, history, biography, graphic art and all forms of American writing.

Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times bestselling author Deborah Blum presents her new book The Poison Squad, which tells 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. Books will be sold and signed at the event.


By the end of the 19th century, food in America was increasingly dangerous - lethal even. Milk and meat were routinely preserved with formaldehyde; beer and wine were preserved with salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical; canned vegetables were greened-up by copper sulphate, a toxic metallic salt; rancid butter was made edible with borax, best known as a cleaning product. Food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry and were knowingly selling harmful products, putting profit before the health of their customers. Citizens began agitating for change.

In 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the United States Department of Agriculture, and the agency began investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, "The Poison Squad."

Over the next 30 years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning tirelessly for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking report 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 Pure 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.

DEBORAH BLUM is director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, and publisher of Undark magazine. In 1992, she won the Pulitzer Prize for a series on primate research, which she turned into a book, The Monkey Wars. Her other books include The Poisoner's Handbook, Ghost HuntersLove at Goon Park, and Sex on the Brain. She has written for various publications including The New York TimesWiredTimeThe GuardianDiscoverMother Jones, and The Boston Globe. Blum is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a lifetime associate of the National Academy of Sciences.

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