Opening the FDA’s History Vault

By: Suzanne Junod, Ph.D., and John Swann, Ph.D.

Welcome to the FDA’s History Vault, which contains more than 10,000 artifacts that provide a journey through American history and document the critical role played by one of the nation’s oldest public health agencies in support of its mission to promote and protect American health.

Suzanne Junod and John Swann

Suzanne Junod, Ph.D., and John Swann, Ph.D., holding FDA artifacts.

The items featured in this new series of short videos reflect the constant changes in science and society. It is the responsibility of the FDA’s history office to document and share these changes through the collection, management, and display of these rare, and in many cases, irreplaceable items.

Besides collecting and maintaining these articles, our office embraces the broader role of history: to inform, explain, and educate, so that future decisions are made with the best available knowledge and science.

The collection includes deceptive and dangerous foods, medicines, and so-called medical products that the FDA helped remove from commerce and that led to important changes in laws and regulations.

For example, it includes:

  • a sample of Elixir Sulfanilamide, a 1937 wonder drug that was formulated with a poisonous solvent that killed more than 100 people, including many children. The 1937 disaster spurred passage of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, the basic law under which the FDA still operates.
  • a can of Bon Vivant vichyssoise soup (contents removed) that sparked an outbreak of botulism in the early 1970s and significant new food protections for consumers
  • the Dalkon Shield intrauterine device, an ill-designed product that left thousands of women sterile during the 1970s, and encouraged Congress to craft legislation that specifically addressed the safety and efficacy of medical devices, and,
  • the Relaxicisor, a passive electric muscle stimulation “exercise” device first made famous during the 1950s, and again, more recently, thanks to the television show “Mad Men.”

Artifacts like these tell the story of the origins of many of our laws and regulations, the ways in which the FDA works to carry out its responsibilities to uphold them, and the interactions between the agency, its stakeholders, consumers, patients, and Congress in the interests of public health and product safety.

Other artifacts in our vault  illustrate how FDA’s essential tools, which once seemed pioneering in their time, are eventually superseded as FDA adopts new approaches in response to continuing advances in science and technology.

The first video released today harkens back to the time of the Bureau of Chemistry, the organization that preceded the FDA, when data on foods and drugs was analyzed using a novel early calculating device.

It’s worth noting that like other federal agencies, FDA also hired women to be human “computers,” an important role that was brought to greater attention in the recent movie “Hidden Figures,” which depicted three such women who worked at NASA. By the 1940’s and 1950’s, women at the FDA regularly used statistical methods to distinguish products with therapeutic merit from those “which merely had good copywriters.” Their work played an important role in the analysis of the earliest “cooperative” clinical drug trials. Of course, just like NASA, data analysis at FDA is now made possible by computers and supercomputers.

The series of videos we begin today are designed to be entertaining, informative, fun, as well as highlight some of the items in our collection securely stored in our White Oak facility. We plan to release them once a month, always on Thursday, as part of the popular social media tradition of “Throwback Thursday.” The goal is to educate and increase the understanding of the ways that the FDA has, for more than 100 years, embraced scientific advances to ensure the well-being of the American public.

We hope you enjoy your visit to “the FDA’s History Vault.”

Suzanne Junod, Ph.D., and John Swann, Ph.D., are FDA Historians.