Pork, politics, and public health

I dare not eat / A dead pig's meat / Though not of creed of Moses /
For, oh, I fear / From what I hear, / That horrid trichinosis

—anonymous

During an autopsy of an Italian barometer maker in a London hospital in January 1835, doctors found what they termed "spiculae of bone" in his muscles. James Paget, a medical student at that hospital, examined these objects with a magnifying lens and found that many were cysts with "a small worm coiled up" inside. Richard Owen, an older and wealthier scientist who could afford a powerful microscope, examined these worms and named them Trichina spiralis (later changed to Trichinella spiralis). In time, other scientists found these parasites in raw or under-cooked pork. And others showed that they caused trichinosis, an often fatal disease.

Since few Americans ate raw pork, trichinosis was never a big problem in the United States. Just to be safe, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture advised, time and again, that pork should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160° Fahrenheit. If thermometers were not available, boiling pork for 15 minutes per pound in summer (or 18 minutes per pound in winter) would prevent trichinosis.

Europe was a different story. Following an outbreak of trichinosis in the 1860s, European countries insisted on inspections of all pork on the market. When Americans refused to pay for inspections, Europeans embargoed American pork—thereby protecting their agricultural industries as well as their citizens. As the economic effects of this embargo became onerous, American meat producers and packers sought public assistance. Many requests came from Chicago, Illinois, the city that, with the great expansion of railroads at mid-century, had become "Hog butcher for the world" (as the poet Carl Sandburg would later write). Philip Armour, a major entrepreneur, asked Washington to send scientists to inspect hogs killed at his Chicago plant. When this went well, Armour lobbied for federal inspection of all pork intended for export. The Chicago Board of Trade agreed, calling for "vigorous action on the part of the national government to protect this great industry." After Congress gave its approval, American pork again appeared on European tables.

'Uncle Sam' stands tall by a number of pigs as the American flag is torn off the pole by a number of miniature men, with one man standing on a hill overlooking the scene with a telescope

As was the case with most American jobs, those in the inspection laboratories were gender specific. Thus, for instance, the director of the Chicago station noted the "opening for women made by this work, for which they are oftener adapted than men." Those already selected, he added, have proved "without a single exception to be successful manipulators of the microscope, delicate and refined in their work, and thoroughly reliable." Others described the "assistant microscopists" as "scholars from the high schools, selected with regard to their intelligence, character, and standing." When 45 "well dressed and intelligent" young women in Boston, Massachusetts, took the civil service examination for these jobs, a local commissioner expressed surprise that such women were willing to work for a mere $50 a month. There is "a certain glamor about government positions," he said, adding that "people would rather work for the government than for private concerns at much more salary." He did not, however, identify private concerns that would give large numbers of women a living wage.

women sit on rows in a large room inspecting specimens with microscopes

The U.S. Department of Agriculture mounted displays at several local and international exhibitions. Here, visitors could look into a microscope and see "the famous Trichina spiralis, a little worm which infests pork, and which sometimes causes the death of persons who swallow them in rare meat."

two women in a room with glass-fronted cabinets sit in the forefront of the photograph with microscopes

Benjamin Harrison, the Republican president who initiated the pork inspection program, looked favorably on federal projects for internal improvements. President Grover Cleveland, his Democratic successor, did not. And he did not demur when his Secretary of Agriculture announced that meat inspection was a case of "private business at public expense," and argued that meat packers should bear the cost of the inspections.

The pork inspection program ended in 1906. Some argued that the costs outweighed the benefits. Redundancy was also a factor, as German inspectors had begun examining all meat coming into their country. So too was the fact that meat that failed the federal inspection could not be exported—but could be sold in the United States. And, perhaps most important of all, scientists in the Bureau of Animal Industry realized that other matters, such as hog cholera, posed a greater threat to the heath of American consumers, and that federal resources should be put to that end.

While the museum has over 200 microscopes, we have yet to collect one of this sort.

Deborah Warner is a curator of the Physical Sciences Collection who blogs about science and culture. She encountered this story while writing about the museum’s microscopes.