A glass bottle labeled "100 Tablets Kevadon thalidomide" from the WM. S. Merrell Company.

A History of the FDA Notices of Judgment—John Swann

On May 7, 2015, the National Library of Medicine held 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 2014in 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 included presentations from NLM Archivist John Rees and FDA Historians Suzanne Junod and John Swann. Circulating Now interviewed the presenters and today we hear from John Swann.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What is your typical workday like?

John Swann at a podium with the FDA logo in the background.John Swann: I grew up in a small town in northeastern Kansas, Leavenworth, perhaps best known for a number of prisons located nearby. When I was a kid my baseball teams played some games at the honor farms at the federal and state penitentiaries, but that’s about as close as I got! I did my undergraduate work at the University of Kansas (Chemistry and History) and I received my Ph.D. in Pharmacy and in History of Science at the University of Wisconsin. After a postdoctoral year at the Smithsonian I worked on an institutional history of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, then I came to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1989.

As an historian at the FDA I have the opportunity to get involved in a wide range of activities: publishing historical work; speaking to new hires, visitors, and outside groups of all kinds; mounting exhibits (I’m currently working on an exhibit about the variety of ways and reasons why FDA has issued warnings to the public and professional audiences in the past); participating in agency decisions about the identification and preservation of historically significant records; documenting FDA’s history through material culture; occasionally assisting in the development of legal briefs and other agency studies with historical background; interacting with outsiders such as scholars, the print and broadcast media, students at all levels of education, filmmakers, law firms, and others that have an interest in the history of FDA and its work. I don’t get involved in all of these every day, but life can get interesting sometimes.

CN: This special event celebrates the completion of the digital archive of FDA Notices of Judgment Collection, 1908–1966, how did this collaboration come about?

JS: The FDA History Office has had a long collaboration with the History of Medicine Division (HMD) at NLM since about the 1970s with our oral history program. The recordings of interviews we conduct, along with a copy of the transcript, are deposited in the archives in HMD. This has worked out very well, and I think the prospect of having their interviews in NLM for posterity has helped us when approaching retiring agency officials for oral histories. Of course, there have been many other occasions where we’ve worked with NLM over the years. For example, Suzanne collaborated with NLM on an exhibition about the history of tea and its regulation, I’ve served on the NLM history of medicine grants evaluation panels a few times, and we have a couple objects presently on loan to NLM—treatments for leprosy from our artifact collection—for the current exhibition Native Voices.

Homepage for the FDA Notices of Judgement Collection, 1908-1966 website.

Our collaboration on the unpublished seizure case files and the Notices of Judgment developed out of a concern for the preservation of the case files. Typically, regulatory records such as these have not been identified as permanent records, perhaps in part because of their volume. However, they shed light on so many elements of the development of American business, culture, health, and of course regulation, that we felt it necessary to find a home for this collection. Not an easy task, since the records date from about 1908 to the 1960s, and beyond. The HMD Director at the time, Dr. Elizabeth Fee, and Dr. Paul Theerman, who oversaw the archives then, appreciated the historical research value of this collection, received the support of the Library leadership, and made the commitment to take these on—and in the process substantially expand the size of the HMD archives! So, FDA and NLM developed a Memorandum of Understanding for the transfer of current and future seizure files.

CN: Would you tell us about the research you presented in your lecture today?

JS: I explained why these records came about in the first place, under both the 1906 Food and Drugs Act and the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, as a statutory obligation to inform the public about the work the Bureau of Chemistry and the Food and Drug Administration was doing to oversee these important consumer protection laws. Since John Rees and Suzanne delved into examples of the nature of the inquiries that the Notices of Judgment and case files can address, I tried to focus a bit more on the challenge in finding a safe haven for this enormous collection and the challenges inherent in that enterprise.

CN: What sparked your interest in working with this collection? Are there any items that stand out for you as particularly useful in your research, or for which you have special interest?

JS: I knew the collection was a gold mine from about the moment I arrived at the agency. James Harvey Young, the historian of food and drug control whose personal papers are now a part of the archives at NLM, told me about their usefulness. Certainly, these were an important resource in Harvey’s research and publications that I had followed long before I came to FDA. When I learned that these records—records dating back to 1908—could be destroyed, it was obvious something had to be done to prevent that. But not just to avoid their destruction; these had to be made available in a venue where researchers could make use of them, and where the records would receive proper care.

I have used them in my own research, of course. For example, in work I did on the history of a very dangerous diet pill from the 1930s called dinitrophenol (DNP)—a byproduct of the munitions industry—the case files, and the Notices of Judgment that introduced me to the most relevant of these files, really helped me understand the challenge for FDA of dealing with a product that was killing people yet slipped through the loopholes of the 1906 Act. Indeed, DNP served as one of the more high-profile components of the “Chamber of Horrors,” a traveling exhibit assembled by FDA to illustrate the need for a new law. The seizure case files helped me gain an understanding of the regulatory history of this hazardous drug.

CN: How did you originally become interested in the history of pharmaceutical and drug regulation? What inspires you in your work?

A glass bottle labeled "100 Tablets Kevadon thalidomide" from the WM. S. Merrell Company.
A seized bottle of Kevadon (thalidomide)
Courtesy FDA

JS: I had an early interest in the history of pharmaceuticals per se since the time of my graduate work, though my introduction to the evolution of drug regulation really did not start in earnest until I arrived at FDA. As I started to investigate the subject it fascinated me more and more. While I miss some of the research I was engaged in prior to coming to FDA, looking at networks of research and how they interact with one another, FDA is a great place to work and its history is an unending source of amazement. And now that there are so many scholars interested in the history of pharmaceuticals and regulation, being at FDA gives me an opportunity to learn about their work, discuss my own, and possibly help them navigate the confusing records terrain of the agency. But when it comes to the seizure files and Notices of Judgements, I know where I can send them.

Being at FDA has given me the chance to learn things I otherwise would never have had the chance to if I were working outside the agency, and some of these things do give me pause. For example, I never would have been called by the person in Oregon, wondering if I knew anything about some diet pills back in the 1960s that she heard had killed her mother. Upon investigating I discovered a story that, in itself was a horrible episode in medical history, but delving deeper I learned that it was part of an ongoing history that has drawn me in ever since.

Stay tuned this week as Circulating Now brings you interviews with the presenters of the 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.


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