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Culinary Poisons

Friedrich Christian Accum (1769-1838)
A Treatise on the Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons (Philadelphia : Printed and published by Ab'm Small, 1820)
Special Collections and Rare Books
TX563 .A2 1820b

Friedrich Accum portrait
Image credit: National Library of Medicine

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw an explosion of food adulteration in the name of profit.  Grocers and suppliers often watered milk down, and then restored its color with chalk, plaster, or white lead.  Plaster and chalk were also added to flour, lead to wine and beer, and dust or soot to spices, coffee, and tea.  Food colorings commonly contained poisons such as mercury, lead, copper, arsenic, and vitriol. 

Friedrich Accum, a chemist, published the first comprehensive survey of food adulteration, including the names and addresses of known suppliers of adulterated products in London.  The book was a bombshell.  In the uproar it created, Accum’s life was threatened.  He was brought before a court on trumped-up charges, but he eventually escaped back to his native Berlin.  Although Accum never published another scientific paper under his own name, his book brought food purity to the forefront of consumer issues.

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