Harvey Washington Wiley

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(b. Kent, Indiana, 18 October 1844; d. Washington, D.C., 30 June 1930)


The son of Preston Prichard Wiley and Lucinda Maxwell, Wiley received his early education primarily from his father, who ran a subscription school during the seasons when farm work was not pressing. He received the B.A. from Hanover College in 1867, the M.D. from Indiana Medical College in 1871, and the B.S. from Lawrence Scientific School, Harvard, in 1873. In 1874 Wiley became professor of chemistry at Purdue University and served as Indiana state chemist, except for a short interlude of European study, until 1883, when he was appointed chief of the Division (later Bureau) of Chemistry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

By then Wiley had become well-known as an analytical chemist with expertise in sugar chemistry and technology. Although he continued the sugar studies in Washington, he was becoming concerned about the widespread adulteration of syrups available in the marketplace. This concern quickly spread to other foods. His agency undertook extensive analysis of commercial foods and reported widespread adulteration. Wiley became active in a campaign to bring about passage of pure food legislation by Congress, but his efforts were repeatedly frustrated.

In 1902 the Bureau of Chemistry undertook studies on the physiological effects of various chemical additives in human foods. These studies, made on human volunteers, raised doubts regarding the safety of salicylates, borates, formaldehyde, benzoates, saccharin, and copper salts in foods. Termed the “Poison Squad” experiments by newsmen, the studies attracted widespread interest.

The Food and Drug Act was finally passed in 1906, after scandals in the drug trade and in the meat-packing industry brought heavy public pressure on Congress for remedial action. The Bureau of Chemistry was charged with enforcement of the new law; but Wiley’s efforts were frustrated as a consequence of industrial pressures on Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson, who steadily handicapped Wiley’s work with bureaucratic obstructions. Of particular significance was the creation of the Referee Board of Consulting Scientific Experts, headed by Ira Remsen. This board repeated the studies on benzoates and other food additives, arriving at the conclusion that benzoates and saccharin were safe for use in foods, at least in limited amounts.

In 1912, shortly after being exonerated by a congressional committee of charges of alleged misuse of funds, Wiley decided that his enforcement powers had been undermined to such a degree that he could no longer be effective within the government. He resigned to become director of the Bureau of Foods, Sanitation, and Health for the magazine Good Housekeeping. Although he had hoped to use this position to educate the public, his efforts were largely ineffective.

Although he had a great deal of personal charm and was an effective public speaker, Wiley was also a forceful, determined, and uncompromising fighter for what he considered the best interests of the public. His firmness brought him many enemies, and his effectiveness declined steadily in the last three decades of his life. Nevertheless, his overall accomplishments were impressive. Besides his work for pure foods and drugs, Wiley was very active in the development of agricultural analysis and was a founder of the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists in 1884, serving as its president in 1886. He served two terms as president of the American Chemical Society.


I. Original Works. Wiley meticulously saved letters, diaries, notebooks, lecture MSS, newspaper clippings, and other papers. His personal papers are now preserved in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. There also are extensive holdings of Wiley letters and related official material in the Bureau of Chemistry records in the National Archives. The National Archives also holds relevant material in the files of the secretary of agriculture, the office of the solicitor general, and the Food and Drug Administration: and there is some related material in the papers of presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. For information on these holdings, see Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., The Health of a Nation, Harvey Wiley and the Fight for pure Food (Chicago, 1958), passim, esp. 280–282.

There is no complete bibliography of Wiley’s extensive published works. As chief of the Bureau of Chemistry he had responsibility for all of its publications and wrote many of them. The early work on sugar production is treated in the annual reports of Purdue University and in early bulletins and reports of the Bureau of Chemistry, U.S. Department of Agriculture (Bulletin nos. 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 14, 17, 21). The extensive studies of food adulteration were published as “Foods and Food Adulterants,” Bulletin. Bureau of Chemistry. United States Department of Agriculture, no. 13, 10 pts. (1887–1899). The “Poison Squad” experiments were published as “Influence of Food preservatives and Food Adulterants,” ibid., no. 84, 6 pts.(1904–1908).

Wiley’s work on analytical procedures was published in standard scientific journals and government bulletins until 1884, when he was active in organizing the Association of Offical Agricultural Chemists. The Association’s Official Methods were published by the Bureau of Chemistry as Bulletin no. 7 (1885) and were reprinted as Bulletin no. 107, with revisions, for many years thereafter. Through Wiley’s influence, the Bureau of Chemistry provided extensive support to the Association for publication of proceedings, as well as manpower for checking proposed analytical methods. When Wiley was honorary president of the Association between 1912 and 1930, his annual addresses were published in Journal of the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists. His Principles and Practice of Agricultural Analysis, 3 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1894–1897), went through rev. eds. in 1906–1911 and 1926.

Other books by Wiley are Foods and Their Adulteration (Philadelphia, 1907; 2nd ed., 1911; 3rd ed., 1917); 1001 Tests of Foods, Beverages and Toilet Accessories (New York, 1914); The Lure of the Land (New York, 1915); Not by Bread Alone, The Principles of Human Nutrition (New York, 1915); Beverages and Their Adulteration (Philadelphia, 1919); History of a Crime Against the Food Law (Washington, 1929); and Harvey W. Wiley, an Autobiography (Indianapolis, 1930). History of a Crime, which is strongly autobiographical, was written late in life, when Wiley was very ill, and reflects a personal bitterness that might have been more tempered had it been written earlier. The Autobiography, which was finished with the aid of O. K. Armstrong, gives less attention to the enforcement period, is less belligerent, and is perhaps more representative of the real Wiley, who combined firmness with charm.

II. Secondary Literature. The best biography of Wiley is Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., The Health of a Nation Harvey W. Wiley and the Fight for Pure Food (Chicago, 1958). M. Natenberg, The Legacy of Dr. Wiley and the Administration of His Food and Drug Act (Chicago, 1957), was written as a propaganda piece and has only minor value. The 1931 meeting of the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists commemorated Wiley–the memorials read by W. W. Skinner, C. A. Browne, W. G. Campbell, et al., are published in Journal of the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists,14 (1931), iii-xxii. Useful short biographies are W. D. Bigelow, “Harvey Washington Wiley,” in Industrial Engineering Chemistry,15 (1923), 88; C. A. Browne, “Harvey Washington Wiley,” in Dictionary of American Biography, XX, 215–216; E. J. Dies, Titans of the Soil (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1949), 151–158; and A. J. Ihde, in E. Farber, ed., Great Chemists (New York, 1961), 813–819. There is extensive background material on the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in Mark Sullivan, Our Times, The United States, 1900–1925 (New York, 1927), II, 471–551; and James Harvey Young, The Toadstool Millionaires (Princeton, 1961), 226–246. On the role of Wiley in the early enforcement of the Pure Food and Drug Act, see O. E. Anderson, Jr., “The Pure-Food Issue: A Republican Dilemma, 1906–1912,” in American Historical Review,61 (1956), 550–573.

Aaron J. Ihde

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Harvey Washington Wiley

The American chemist Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930) established the methods and philosophy of food analysis. His writings and influence made him the "father of the Food and Drug Administration."

Harvey Wiley was born in Kent, Ind., on Oct. 18, 1844, the son of a farmer. His oldest sister Elizabeth Jane Wiley Corbett, became an early woman physician. A sturdy boy with a fine and receptive mind, Wiley advanced from a log-cabin schoolhouse to Hanover College in Indiana, where he majored in the humanities. He interrupted his studies to serve in the Union Army and then returned, graduating from Hanover in 1867.

Wiley became an instructor in Latin and Greek (1868-1871) at Butler University while continuing his studies at Indiana Medical College, from which he received his medical degree in 1871; subsequent studies took him to Harvard and the University of Berlin. Meanwhile he became a professor of chemistry at Butler, then at Purdue University. Having served as Indiana's state chemist, he became chief chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1883.

Wiley did a series of studies of food products and published several papers which established him among agricultural chemists. His achievements while at the Department of Agriculture were of both a technical and, uniquely, social character: he devised instruments and methods for processing glucose, grape sugar, and sorghum sugar and practically established the beet-sugar industry in the United States. Wiley also supervised the preparation of his landmark Bulletin No. 13: Foods and Food Adulterants (1887-1889), which covered all classes of food products and described methods of analysis. However, Wiley's dynamic personal qualities, expressed on the public platform and, informally, in such a private publication as Songs of Agricultural Chemists (1892) carried the subject beyond the arguments of technicians.

In 1902 Wiley established his famous "poison squad," a group of volunteers who became "human guinea pigs" to help determine the effect on digestion and health of preservatives, coloring matter, and other substances. His work was the base from which a variety of exposés and sensations, including patent medicines and processed beef, roused the nation, resulting in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Subsequently Wiley found himself under fire by interests dissatisfied with his rigid application of standards. Controversy over administration of the act and its specific effect on industries continued through the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Wiley, persuaded that the act had been betrayed, resigned his government post in 1912.

Wiley then became director of the bureau of foods for Good Housekeeping, published books on health and adulteration, and lectured widely and effectively. A man of excellent presence, magnetic and witty, he stirred general and professional audiences and was accorded national and international honors. In 1929 his retrospective History of a Crime against the Food Law provided inspiration for later crusaders. Active to the end, he died in Washington, D.C., on June 30, 1930.

Further Reading

Wiley's An Autobiography (1930) is also valuable as history. Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., The Health of a Nation (1958), provides details on Wiley's major battle. Wiley is examined in the context of the Progressive era in Louis Filler, The Muckrakers: Crusaders for American Liberalism (1968 ed.). □

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Harvey Washington Wiley, 1844–1930, American chemist, b. Kent, Ind., grad. Hanover College (B.A., 1867), M.D. Indiana Medical College, 1871. After serving (1874–83) as state chemist of Indiana, he was chief chemist of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (1883–1912) and professor of agricultural chemistry at George Washington Univ. (1899–1914). A prominent figure in the fight against food adulteration, he was largely responsible for the passage and administration of the Food and Drug Act of 1906. His writings include works on agricultural chemistry and food adulteration.