Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906: Definition, Summary & History

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  • 0:00 The Pure Food and Drug…
  • 1:24 The Role of the Muckrakers
  • 2:46 The Role of Scientific…
  • 3:33 The Role of the President
  • 4:04 Drug Regulations
  • 5:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has a JD and a BA in sociology and political science.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 established limitations on what manufacturers could put in pharmaceutical and food products. We'll discuss how it arose out of the Progressive Era and its effect on American history in this lesson.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906

Is your baby keeping you up at night? Calm him down with this soothing syrup laced with moderate amounts of opium! Do you have a problem with your heart, kidney, or stomach? Why not just take this remedy that will cure you like magic. Are you balding or losing hair? Wipe on some of this special potion and just like that you will be cured. Would you like to see what is being put inside your food? Too bad, because we are not going to share our secret. But wait, it gets better. Would you like to try this bottle of ketchup preserved with formaldehyde (the same chemical used to treat warts)?

All of these scenarios seem ridiculous, even absurd by today's standards. But prior to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, all of these products and practices were in place. The Pure Food and Drug Act was the first legislation in the country that sought to regulate pharmaceuticals and food products by requiring truth-in-labeling on products, creating inspectors of the drug and food manufacturing process, and creating a list of 10 dangerous drugs that had to be labeled at all times.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 came about during the Progressive Era of American history. During this era, reformers sought to improve the moral and social fabric of America through prohibition, improving public services for the immigrant poor, cleaning up corruption in politics, and improving public health and sanitation.

The Role of the Muckrakers

A large part of the progressive movement was spurred on by muckraking journalists. Muckrakers were known for investigative journalism that exposed the serious deficiencies of America's food and drug industries. A particular focus of Muckrakers was the quality of food being distributed in America. One Muckraker, Upton Sinclair, wrote a book called The Jungle, which documented the dirty conditions of rat-infested meat factories. Due to Sinclair's work, the Meat Inspection Act was signed into law on the same day as the Pure Food and Drug Act.

However, the Muckraking journalist most credited with exposing the flaws in the pharmaceutical industry was Samuel Hopkins Adams. Adams wrote 11 articles for Collier's Weekly in which he thoroughly documented how the pharmaceutical industry often put the general public's health at risk. In his book, 'The Great American Fraud,' Adams wrote:

'Gullible America will spend this year some seventy-five millions of dollars in the purchase of patent medicines. In consideration of this sum, it will swallow huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, a wide assortment of varied drugs ranging from powerful and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and, in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud.'

Adams thus played a central role in bringing the flaws of the pharmaceutical industry to light.

The Role of Scientific Pioneers

However, Muckrakers were not the only people to have an influence on the development of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Scientists and their research also contributed to the creation of new legislation by providing some of the evidence of the harmful effects of certain products and practices.

One of the big scientific pioneers that paved the way for the Pure Food and Drug Act was Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley. Wiley investigated the effects of common preservatives used at the time by conducting live tests on human volunteers. His subjects would eat food laced with borax, formaldehyde, and benzoate. Such dangerous human tests would be banned by today's standards of medicine and ethics, to say the least. But Dr. Wiley's research helped provide scientific proof that greater regulation was needed in the pharmaceutical industry.

The Role of the President

While the reports of Muckrakers like Upton Sinclair and Samuel Hopkins Adams and scientists like Harvey Washington Wiley were being published, Teddy Roosevelt served as President of the United States. President Roosevelt was utterly disgusted by the findings of these reports, and he pushed for national legislation to regulate the food and drug manufacturing industries. His role in advancing the Progressive agenda and its sociopolitical ideals proved hugely influential in getting the Food and Drug Act passed and its changes implemented.

Drug Regulations

Some of the most important changes to come bout from the implementation of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 involved the regulation of specific drugs thought to be dangerous or products that contained potentially harmful drugs. The Act created penalties for those who contaminated drugs or misbranded drugs by making false promises. Companies now had to be truthful in their labeling or face fines.

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