Women wept in the streets when the FDA's first commissioner left office in 1912. This summer, as the nation observes the centennial of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act that established the FDA, it is sobering to reflect on the profound changes that have on one hand diminished the standing of the commissioner and on the other raised the level of public health and safety that this agency guarantees. (One measure of the latter is that a newborn's life expectancy in 1906 was 49 years, compared with 77 now.)
Contrast the six-week tenure of the FDA's last confirmed commissioner, Lester M. Crawford, now under criminal investigation over his official obligations, with the national reverence in which the FDA's first commissioner was held. Born in a log cabin, Harvey Washington Wiley fearlessly fought rogue food and drug hucksters who had never been regulated before—but who had plenty of clout on Capitol Hill.
In addition to drafting the Pure Food and Drugs Act, his most famous exploit was the “Poison Squad,” composed of healthy young men who volunteered to test suspect foods and chemicals on themselves.
After five years at the FDA's helm, Wiley resigned rather than continue battling his critics, and went to Good Housekeeping magazine, where he headed their laboratories and established the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. When he died in 1930, he was still held in such high national esteem that he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
With our greater sophistication, our national leadership at all levels seems to have fallen in general esteem, regardless of current political divisiveness.
As we observe the FDA's centennial this summer, it's hard to think of the departure of its commissioner bringing tears to the eyes. I think that's a pity.
Dickinson is editor of Dickinson's FDA Webview (fdaweb.com)