The 2019-2020 UW-Madison Go Big Read (GBR) selection is The Poison Squad, by Deborah Blum. Blum, a journalist, science writer, Pulitzer Prize winning author, and former UW-Madison faculty, chronicles the story of the Department of Agriculture’s Harvey W. Wiley and his team of assistants who worked tirelessly to assure that our children’s milk, our grandmother’s vegetables, and our coworker’s meat were not preserved with formaldehyde, enhanced with copper sulfate or made edible with borax.
In other words, The Poison Squad touches on countless disciplines and themes; public health, chemistry, laboratory science, state and federal regulations, food manufacturing, advertising, forensics, demographics, and the economic access to wholesome foodstuffs, a perfect landscape of subjects for a health sciences class to discuss or, forgive me, chew on.
Wiley’s work culminated in the landmark 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which established federal food regulation, and was followed in 1938 by a law that created the modern U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These and subsequent laws came on the heels of gruesome or deadly examples of adulterated foods, drugs or medical devices.
Wiley’s world included activists, politicians, manufacturers, and muckrakers, like Jane Addams, Iowa’s William Hepburn, Monsanto’s John F. Queeny, Louis Swift, and Upton Sinclair; all involved in pursuits that supported Wiley’s passion for protecting the public, or tried to thwart regulations they thought would hinder their food manufacturing businesses. Like all robust storytelling, Blum’s rendering comes with historical scaffolding, investigative verve, a visceral narrative and speculation about the need for continued protection of our current agricultural practices and food industry standards.
If you, as an instructor or faculty member would like to use in a course or discussion group, please go here.
For a bit more, here is the Go Big Read website.
Deborah Blum will be in campus for GBR’s Keynote Event on Tuesday, October 15th at 7:00 at Memorial Union Theatre. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel suggested, “Blum’s brilliant book is many things at once: a science lesson, peppered with historical anecdotes, tucked inside a compelling narrative that, in the end, is perfectly pitched and compulsively readable.”