article July 12, 2022

The FDA: A Brief History


Written by: Casey Gunzenhauser, Intern


The Food and Drug Administration, widely referred to as the FDA, spawned from the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act; a piece of legislation brought on by the muckraking journalism movement of the early 20th century. Since then, the FDA has continuously worked to gain the necessary ability to properly regulate the development of drugs and the sale of food products in the United States.

The largest driving force behind the creation of the FDA was a USDA chemist named Harvey Wiley. Wiley had a unique perspective on drug regulation: transparency. When it was revealed to the American public in 1906 that processed meat was being filled with inedible material, the resulting uproar was an adverse reaction to the breach of trust between sellers and consumers. The anger was compounded by the safety risk posed by processed meat, but consumers most despised having been unapologetically lied to. There was no system in place to ensure that food and drug distributors were providing their customers with complete information on their products. Few people questioned their providers at all. That problem is what Wiley had been seeking to eliminate with the FDA, and the meat exposé finally gave him the advantage of public awareness.

Months after the exposal of deception in the meat industry, the FDA was founded. Unfortunately, the FDA was not originally equipped with enough power to ensure customer safety, and a pattern began to emerge in Congress that mirrored the meat problems that sparked its creation. In 1912, the court case U.S. v. Johnson—a 1911 case that effectively limited the FDA’s ability to regulate medicine due to the wording of the original Pure Food and Drug Act—was overturned after it was discovered that a popular baby formula had been using morphine as an ingredient. In 1937, a revised version of the 1906 Food and Drug Act was suddenly passed after being stuck in the Senate for years after a suspect cold medicine was found to have caused 107 deaths due to its chemical makeup. In 1962, the FDA was strengthened again, regaining support of the public after the internationally known medicine Thalidomide was found to cause birth defects in thousands of children worldwide.

Throughout history, every time the public suddenly lost trust in their suppliers, it has been the FDA’s job to repair that trust, and to keep that trust strong for as long as possible. Trust is the maxim that Harvey Wiley originally worked to follow, and although he faced an uphill battle at the time, it eventually became the maxim that the FDA upholds today. The FDA was created for the purpose of remedying safety, but its exigence was a breach of trust.


Learn More About The FDA