Ergot and the First Roots of the FDA

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Naomi Rendina. Rendina is a PhD candidate at Case Western Reserve University. She is expected to defend her dissertation, Pushing Too Hard: Pharmaceuticals and the Nature of Childbirth, in early March 2020. Here she explores the role a controversy of ergot played in creating the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which was first formed in 1906. 

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Naomi Rendina

Pharmacists and historians celebrated the 200th anniversary of the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) at the 44th International Congress for the History of Pharmacy, on September 5- 8, 2019, in Washington, DC. Founded in 1819, the USP remains the non-profit organization responsible for creating the standards for medicines, food ingredients, and supplements. These standards ensure that each compound is appropriately identified, and is of consistent strength, quality, and purity. For three days, historians and pharmacists presented their research on drugs, as well as histories of the profession and institutions that shape pharmacy. 

What most stood out to me was a comment that  FDA historian Dr. John Swann made during his portion of the Opening Ceremony comments. He said that the period between 1906 and 1938 were formative years of what became the Food and Drug Administration. This statement underlined one of my frustrations in researching the history of ergot (a group of fungi that have been used to treat a variety of medical issues, including inducing contractions and controlling bleeding after childbirth). The incident fascinated me, but I stumbled through reasons why anyone else would find this as amazing as I did. Dr. Swann argued that these years were foundational to the institutionalization of science and of the regulation of food and medicine in the United States, but are all too often only given a cursory glance. 

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Big Nicotine, Part II: Addiction and the “Cult of Pharmacology”

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its intention to lower the nicotine content of cigarettes to, ideally, “minimally or nonaddictive” levels. Public health advocates celebrated the decision; on the other hand, Big Tobacco investors began dumping shares at the prospect of supplying an ever-more-elastic demand.

Cigarette critics and capitalists alike belong to what Richard DeGrandpre calls the “cult of pharmacology,” a system of belief that dominates American drug discourse. Rooted in modernist faith in understanding the world through scientific approach, by the early twentieth century many considered drug experience to be a straightforward process of brain and body chemistry, without regard for concepts we might recognize today as set and setting. Historically contingent forces divide drugs into “angel” and “demon” categories, but their effects are similarly reduced to biological mechanism: “‘soul’ was reinterpreted as ‘mind,’ and ‘spirit’ was reinterpreted as ‘biochemistry.’”

But cults are given to blind faith, so it is worth considering the extent to which substances are to blame for problem use. Continue reading →