On May 7, 2015, the National Library of Medicine will host a special program, “A History of the Food and Drugs Act Notices of Judgment–From the First Case of 1908 to the Digital Archive of 2014” in collaboration with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) History Office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and in conjunction with the NLM’s recent release of the FDA Notices of Judgment Collection, a digital archive of the published notices judgment for products seized under authority of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. The program will include presentations from NLM Archivist John Rees and FDA Historians Suzanne Junod and John Swann. Circulating Now interviewed the presenters and today we hear from Suzanne Junod.
Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What is your typical workday like?
Suzanne Junod: I was born and raised in Decatur, Georgia just outside of Atlanta. I received my MA and Ph.D. in the History of Medicine from Emory University, where I was fortunate to study with James Harvey Young, who was the first visiting scholar at the NLM History of Medicine Division in the 1980s (his papers are in the NLM collection). I came to Washington in 1984 to take a job as the first professionally trained historian at FDA.
There honestly is never a “typical” day at FDA. Most of the time it is more of a balancing act. Sometimes it seems that if something happened yesterday, it gets referred to the FDA History Office. Luckily my colleague and I have become pros at responding to queries on a deadline whether they originate within the agency or come from outside of FDA. In the morning we might provide speech material for the Commissioner, and by that afternoon or the next, we will need to approve the final text. We may meet with academic researchers, work with documentary film-makers, answer the questions of reporters, assist with historical content for use at “Bring Your Child to Work Day” or provide web based history for “Women’s Health Month.” We provide an introduction to the history of FDA at New Employee Orientation every 2 weeks—at 8:00 AM! We may have an oral history interview scheduled—our office has over 200 interviews online and we work with the National Library of Medicine’s History of Medicine Division to house original materials and and make interviews available to the public. Now that the FDA has consolidated its offices in the White Oak facility in Silver Spring, MD (formerly the White Oak Naval Warfare Center), we are becoming more active in creating displays and exhibits with the artifacts that have been in storage, in some cases, for more than 100 years! We try to make time for original research and writing, and while it is often a challenge, it is important to get our research published. It enriches the field of medical history overall, and we hope that our work encourages other scholars and researchers to consider the FDA’s regulatory role in advancing modern medicine and public health.
CN: This special event celebrates the completion of the digital archive of FDA Notices of Judgment Collection, 1908–1966, how will this digital archive help scholars like you?
SJ: Accessibility is the real key to attracting scholars to first class historical records. These archival materials provide a truly unique window into the world of consumers beginning with the enactment of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, the first federal statute regulating the interstate traffic in foods and drugs. Collectors of “ephemera” collect the beautiful labels, the colorful brochures with entertaining copy, and the carefully preserved mementoes of the most recognizable name brands and products. This collection is far more representative of what the average consumer would have actually encountered in the marketplace in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, warts and all. Cans boasting of superior goods, but containing inferior ones; cheeses short-weighted and mislabeled as fancy French brie and sold at fancy prices; tomato products with high mold counts indicative of spoilage; and a host of fake products such as jams with no fruit, and extract bottles with thick sides so that the consumer would buy a two ounce bottle that contained a single ounce. The collection is also the best evidence we have of the thinking process of early regulators who, faced with a virtual universe of violative products on the market, had to select the most egregious for prosecution. With resources inadequate to the tasks at hand, the agency created project plans that enabled them to clean up the most egregious problems in the marketplace by concentrating on prosecutions centered around one industry or one product at a time. Success in court was published in the Notices of Judgement and served an important role as a deterrent to producers tempted to take shortcuts in the production or labeling of food and drug products.
CN: Would you tell us about the research you will present at the special event tomorrow?
SJ: The Gould Net Weight Amendment is, to modern minds, an obscure statute passed in 1913 that simply required a food label to contain a statement of the net contents of the package. I knew, however, that the modern Nutrition Facts label, which is the most recognized graphic in the world, would not have been possible without the Supreme Court’s approval of FDA’s implementation of the Gould Amendment’s mandatory label requirements in the 1930s. It turns out that this amendment represented a turning point on many levels. It was by far the most legally complicated statute that FDA had worked with up to that time, in spite of the fact that it seemed deceptively simply on its face. In many ways, it completed the circle of consumer protection that the 1906 statute had initiated and it was enacted at an important transition point in the history of the Bureau of Chemistry, as Harvey W. Wiley, its founding father, stepped down and a new Commissioner took a different approach to enforcing the “Wiley Act.” It also came during an era in which women began to choose, for a host of important reasons, packaged food products over the bulk food purchases of the past. The early seizure records were critically important in that they allowed me to see what was happening in the marketplace itself during this time of transition. And, of course, I discovered that the chemists and inspectors used seizures in order to collect evidence that would eventually be presented to Congress in support of the Gould Amendment. This is material that has never appeared in print before, to my knowledge.
CN: How did you originally become interested in the history of pharmaceutical and drug regulation? What inspires you in your work? Have you ever made a discovery that made you say “wow!”?
SJ: My dissertation was on the history of the controversies, scientific and otherwise, which began during the late nineteenth century, over the safety of chemicals used in food products. The history of attempts to define and assure “pure” food, starting with Wiley’s so-called “Poison Squad” studies of the safety of chemical preservatives during the Progressive era continues into the present. Food issues, whether it be the safety of artificial sweeteners, the proper definitions of “natural” and “organic,” or the contents of manufactured or processed foods and the role of “functional” food additives remain an important part of the public discourse over the safety and nutritional qualities of our food supply.
One “wow” moment came as I was researching the consumer concerns centered around chemicals added to foods following WWII when home freezers were coming into widespread use. Frozen foods, often required new recipes that had to resort to so-called “functional” food additives often referred to as “stabilizers” or “emulsions” or by a host of chemical names. The public was fearful about the carcinogenic potential of some of these unfamiliar ingredients and FDA had a backlog of hundreds of ingredients that had not been tested prior to their use. I found some sources in the National Library of Medicine from that period in post-WWII history that provided convincing details regarding the processes by which one important industry leader decided how and what ingredients to use in their frozen foods. I had regulators’ viewpoints; I had consumer viewpoints; I had Congressional viewpoints; but what I did not have, that proved critical, was an important and very detailed understanding of the tremendous changes in food production and distribution following WWII.
Stay tuned this week as Circulating Now brings you interviews with the presenters of NLM’s special program, “A History of the Food and Drugs Act Notices of Judgment–From the First Case of 1908 to the Digital Archive of 2014.”