For Consumers

FDA Historians Share Lessons From Agency's Past

FDA historians John Swann and Suzanne Junod with historical artifacts collection  (350x374)

Historians Dr. Suzanne Junod and Dr. John P. Swann care for thousands of artifacts at FDA, including (left to right) "Placebo Inhalation Powder," an inert treatment that admitted to being therapeutically worthless in its name; "Pep-Ti-Kon," a health tonic containing lots of alcohol; and a model of a "Zerret Applicator," a 1940s-era device that (falsely) promised to relieve suffering from any known disease.

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Food and Drug Administration (FDA) historians Suzanne Junod, Ph.D., and John P. Swann, Ph.D., are experts on the agency's past and oversee a museum-quality collection of several thousand artifacts, including some loaned to the Smithsonian Institution. On staff since 1985 and 1989 respectively, Junod and Swann are specialists on agency actions related to foods and drugs. As FDA's History Office celebrates its 46th anniversary this March, they explain events that changed the nation's history and reveal how they help researchers—including scholars and consumers—with a variety of requests.

What's Your Primary Focus?

John P. Swann: We're here to preserve and disseminate the history of FDA, which has grown from a single chemist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862 to a staff of about 15,000 employees in 2014. We oversee artifacts and records, and we actually work more with people outside of the agency than with those inside. These include consumers, whether they are scholars or people dealing with a personal or family issue that involves a food or medical product regulated by FDA.

Suzanne Junod: For example, I just received a letter from a woman about a group called the "Poison Squad," which dates back to 1902 when FDA was known as the Division of Chemistry. The head of the division at that time, Harvey Washington Wiley, established this volunteer squad of able-bodied young men to eat foods containing measured amounts of chemical preservatives to determine whether they were safe for human consumption. This woman wrote that her grandfather, then a medical student, was involved. Before talking with her, we thought all squad members had been employees in the Division of Chemistry. I'm going to check into that.

Swann: Sometimes we learn from the people who contact us. If it's a topic that has bearing on what we do as an agency, it's worth following up.

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How Else Do You Help People?

Junod: We publish historical research papers in some journals and collaborate with academic and private groups outside the agency on their own research. We'll help anyone who asks and take particular interest in scholars working on big-picture projects. We don't try to influence what they write, but we help with research strategies. The more accurate they are, the better it is for everybody. We've actually helped some people write books that are still influential, such as Adverse Reactions by Thomas Maeder and Reputation and Power by Daniel Carpenter.

Swann: With writers, we're always willing to look at manuscripts and offer suggestions. We also work with people who have different interests. A law firm might be looking for a missing set of transcripts of 1960s-era hearings, for instance. So, the firm would need to know where the records exist within the system. We help them understand where files are located, suggesting such places as the National Archives.

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Is That Why FDA's History Is Important?

Swann: We're the longest-running history office in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. When people look back, they wonder why things happened the way they did and why certain events are important. We try to explain. For example, historically, the agency had to deal with many products making outrageous claims. So the original Food and Drugs Act of 1906 was enacted to prohibit misbranded and adulterated foods, drinks, and drugs.

Junod: At the turn of the 20th century, food colors were just dyes from the textile industry, and companies knew dyes were carcinogenic. But then—like now—people expected foods to look certain ways. (For instance, people want peas to look green, not gray, but processing can take color out of foods.) For safety reasons, FDA went to industry after the 1906 act was passed and said, "We need to purify dyes." The first purified and certified colors began to appear on the market soon afterwards. Disasters have also pushed changes in the law. In 1937 a drug used to treat certain infections called Elixir Sulfanilamide wasn't tested for toxicity; testing wasn't required then. It went on to kill more than 100 people in 15 states. After this tragedy, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FDC) Act of 1938 gave FDA the authority to oversee the safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics. And the 1976 Medical Devices Amendment later strengthened the agency's ability to regulate devices; it was enacted after the 1975 hearings on thousands of injuries caused by the Dalkon Shield intrauterine device (IUD).

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Has Your Work Changed?

Junod: When I came to FDA in 1985, FDA offices were spread around in some 43 buildings around the Capital Beltway. We didn't dare put out valuable artifacts for display because we didn't own or control the space. But now that our headquarters are in Silver Spring, Md., we can exhibit our substantial collection of agency artifacts. Most people have never seen an Elixir Sulfanilamide bottle. But we have this, and other items, on display in FDA's main building so the public can see pieces of food and drug history.

Swann: Our oral history collection also has grown from just a handful of interviews into a collection of more than 230 interviews. In these oral histories, agency officials talk about their tenure at FDA and their role in key agency decisions and initiatives. We're proud of what we do.

Contact FDA's History office by mail at Food and Drug Administration, White Oak Bldg. 1, Room 1201, 10903 New Hampshire Ave., Silver Spring, Md. 20993, and by phone at 301-796-8952.

This article appears on FDA's Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.

March 20, 2014

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