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.
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.