Ruth deForest Lamb: FDA's First Chief Educational Officer
Born in Hallstead, PA, Ruth Lamb graduated from Vassar College in 1918 and worked as a copyrighter for various advertising agencies from 1918-1926. Lamb was one of the first generation of "working" women who began working in the fashionable and fertile field of advertising during its 1920s "golden age."
It was during this period that the term "customer" was replaced with "consumer" and advertisers themselves became mediators in the marketplace creating a demand for products where none had previously existed. To cite a single example, clever advertisers for the product Listerine, transformed it from a douche into a mouthwash through advertising alone. They invented a non-existent disease, halitosis, and sold it with the perennial slogan "Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride." Such advertising trickery, however, was not without its critics.
Consumer research pioneers Arthur Kallet and Frederick Schlink, founders of Consumer’s Research and Consumer’s Union, published in 1935 an influential book, 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Foods, Drugs, and Cosmetics, which heavily criticized FDA and other government agencies for their failure to curb abuses in the marketplace in foods and drugs and the brand new field of cosmetics for women.
FDA itself reacted to the criticisms by assembling an exhibit of products which the agency itself opposed, either because of its contents and components or its false and misleading advertising. Exhibits were an old-style educational tactic, but First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s interest in the exhibit and her invitation to Congressional wives to visit the exhibit, brought an unusually influential audience to see the display and led one reporter to describe it as an "American Chamber of Horrors."
Ruth Lamb, drawing on her new-age advertising experience, took a new-style approach to countering the agency’s critics. She wrote a book by the same name which countered, almost point by point and product by product in some places, the guinea pig critics. Where they blamed bureaucratic disinterest and ineptitude for the failure of federal regulators to act, Lamb systematically explored the legal limitations incumbent on the revered 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, the so-called "Wiley Act" named in tribute to FDA's first Commissioner and crusader for the first federal food and drug statute.
Wiley himself had died a hero to many in 1930 and Lamb was taking a risk with the public by criticizing some of the outdated and obsolete portions of the law. In particular, the invention of radio made it possible for advertisers to make claims for products over the radio airways that the 1906 Act would never allow on the label of a drug product. There was no cosmetics industry in 1906, and medical devices were not in the act at all.
The American Chamber of Horrors, published in 1936, became at least as popular as Kallet and Schlink’s guinea pig books, and played a key role in explaining to the public, to Congressmen, and particularly to their wives, the importance of updating the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act. Her untiring efforts to engage and acknowledge the activism of women’s groups in support of a new statute bore fruit as women shaped many provisions of the new law passed to replace the Wiley Act: The 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the statute and its amendments under which we continue to operate here at FDA. Ruth deForest Lamb left FDA in 1942 and continued to work tirelessly with consumer groups and on behalf of consumers until her death in 1978.