Pure Food and Drug Act
The Argus, Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition special issue (1909)
Many of the best-selling patent medicines available at the turn of the twentieth century claimed to not only benefit but actually “cure” a range of medical problems, including cancer, infertility, tuberculosis, epilepsy, and “female complaints,” to name very few. Although they contained secret formulas, none contained “harmful” ingredients—or so claimed testimonials or the creative pens of manufacturers. Two monumental works by American activists destroyed these long-held myths and led to the passage of the first federal legislation enacted to protect the public from unsafe medications—the Pure Food and Drug Act, which President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law in 1906.
Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle was written with the intent of exposing the meat-packing industry and the exploitation of its workers. The revolting and grossly unsanitary conditions Sinclair described in the preparation of meat products succeeded in catching the public’s attention. In October 1905, the first of an eleven-article series titled “The Great American Fraud,” authored by the investigative reporter Samuel Hopkins Adams, appeared in Collier’s Weekly. In these articles, which were reprinted the following year as a book, Adams exposed the false claims patent medicine manufacturers made for their products and the harmful and even dangerous nature of their ingredients.
The rapidly enacted Pure Food and Drug Act prohibited adulterated and misbranded foods and drugs and destroyed the cloak of secrecy concealing the presence of potentially harmful and habit-forming patent medicines. Although the act did not outlaw the inclusion of alcohol, morphine, opium, cocaine, or cannabis in nonprescription products, products containing these substances had to disclose their presence and amounts. To some, Adams may be better known as the author of “Night Bus,” a short story that served as the basis for the 1934 film (and winner of five major Academy Awards) It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.