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Opening the FDA’s History Vault

Monthly video series highlights the agency’s run-ins with questionable products through the decades

Published: Thursday, March 16, 2017 - 12:01

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) “History Vault” contains more than 10,000 artifacts that provide a journey through U.S. history and document the critical role played by one of the nation’s oldest public health agencies during its mission to promote and protect American health.

These items, which are featured in a 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, the 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 during the early 1970s as well as 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
• The Relaxicisor, a passive electric muscle stimulation “exercise” device first made famous during the 1950s, and again more recently, thanks to the television series 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 the vault illustrate how FDA’s essential tools, which once seemed pioneering in their time, are eventually superseded as the agency adopts new approaches in response to continuing advances in science and technology.

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

It’s worth noting that like other federal agencies, the FDA also hired women to be human “computers,” an important role that was brought to greater attention during the recent movie Hidden Figures, which depicts three such women who worked at NASA. By the 1940s and 1950s, 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 the FDA is now made possible by computers and supercomputers.

The series of videos are designed to be entertaining, informative, and fun, and to highlight some of the items in the collection securely stored in the FDA’s White Oak facility. The videos will be released monthly, always on a 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.

Enjoy your visit to the FDA’s “History Vault.”

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About The Authors

Suzanne Junod’s picture

Suzanne Junod

Suzanne Junod is an FDA historian.

John Swann’s picture

John Swann

John Swann is an FDA historian