Walter G. Campbell

Walter G. Campbell

Walter Campbell. Courtesy FDA History Office, Rockville, Maryland.

For decades after it was passed, the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act (see Harvey Washington Wiley) was held up as a model piece of legislation. However, as time wore on, it became increasingly evident that there were difficulties with enforcement and that the United States needed a stronger, more encompassing law. Spurred on by Walter G. Campbell (1877–1963), chief of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was passed in 1938.

Campbell was born in Kentucky and attended the University of Kentucky, earning a B.A. in 1902. Three years later he received a law degree from the University of Louisville. In 1907 Campbell took the Civil Service examination in order to become an inspector for the enforcement of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, then administered by the Bureau of Chemistry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Shortly thereafter Harvey Wiley, head of the bureau and driving force behind the 1906 law, handpicked Campbell for the position of chief inspector.

When Wiley retired in 1912, Campbell was offered his position as chief of the bureau. Campbell refused, however, strongly believing that such a position would be best filled by a chemist, not by a lawyer. In 1914, when the district system was instituted, Campbell became chief of the Eastern District, and by 1917, he was assistant chief of the USDA. Ten years later he moved to the position of chief of the newly created Food, Drug, and Insecticide Administration (later known as the Food and Drug Administration).

Throughout his career at the USDA and the FDA, Campbell was extremely dedicated to enforcing food and drug legislation. Through his work he began to notice the shortcomings of the landmark 1906 law and the need for new legislation. For example, the 1906 law did not address the growing cosmetics industry. Nor did it adequately control false advertising of drugs, food adulteration, or the so-called patent medicines—popular tonics, typically with a high alcohol content, that claimed to cure a variety of ailments and were widely available, with or without a prescription.

Related legislation had been passed since 1906, including the Sherley Amendment, enacted in 1911, which prohibited medicine labels from carrying false claims; the Gould Amendment of 1913, which required that the quantity of contents be included on food labels; and the 1930 McNary-Mapes Amendment, which established quality standards for canned food. This legislation, though, was not sufficient to address all of the inadequacies of the 1906 act.

Public acknowledgment of the need for new legislation was beginning to increase. In response to consumer discontent, Consumer’s Research, an organization that became highly active in consumer-related legislation, was founded in 1929. In addition, muckraking books, including Arthur Kallet and F. J. Schlink’s 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs and M. C. Phillips’s Skin Deep: The Truth about Beauty Aids, proliferated during the 1930s, detailing precisely how consumers were being cheated and describing the dangerous nature of some drugs, foods, and cosmetics.

In 1933 Campbell and Rexford Guy Tugwell, the newly appointed assistant secretary of agriculture and former member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Brain Trust, agreed to revise the 1906 bill. Tugwell quickly attained President Roosevelt’s approval for the undertaking, and the work began. The following June a draft bill was introduced to Congress. Dubbed the “Tugwell Bill” by its opponents (Tugwell being generally unpopular and highly criticized for his socialist leanings), it was sponsored by Senator Royal Copeland of New York.

Meanwhile Campbell and his office began to publicize the need for new legislation. They distributed information as widely as possible, arranging for speaking engagements and radio spots, and mass mailing pertinent articles. Perhaps their most successful tool was an exhibit known as the “Chamber of Horrors.” This series of posters graphically depicted the victims of the shortcomings in the 1906 bill and became extremely popular. Reproductions were made and loaned to interested organizations. Manufacturing and other industrial pharmaceutical organizations opposing the new legislation forced Campbell and his colleagues to cease their education efforts, citing the 1919 Deficiency Appropriations Act, which prohibited federal agencies from using funds for lobbying. Education efforts did eventually resume but on a much smaller scale.

Many thought that the proposed bill gave too much discretionary power to the FDA. After several revisions it was reintroduced in February 1934. Although women’s groups and professional medical and pharmaceutical organizations still supported the legislation, it was not popular enough to pass. Opposition from industrial organizations remained too strong.

A number of other legislative attempts would be made before a new bill would pass. To compound the difficulties, Tugwell resigned his position in 1936; Campbell lost not only a strong supporter but also his main communication route to President Roosevelt.

In the face of yet another failure, a disaster of near epic proportions spurred politicians and industry leaders to work together on a new law. In 1937 the Samuel E. Massengill Company of Tennessee, introduced an elixir of sulfanilamide, a liquid version of the wonder drug used to treat a variety of infections (see Gerhard Domagk). Unfortunately no toxicity tests had been made on this new medication, which used the poisonous diethylene glycol as a solvent, and 107 people died after taking the drug. When news of the first few deaths reached Campbell, he amassed his entire field force to deal with the problem. Recalls and public announcements were made, and Campbell’s staff tried to track down every last drop of the fatal drug. Under the 1906 act the only violations with which Massengill could be charged related to misbranding. The situation led industrial interests to realize the necessity of new legislation, and public outrage demanded that a bill be passed quickly.

In December 1937 a new FDA-drafted bill with stringent food and drug manufacturing and testing regulations was introduced in the Senate. Almost simultaneously a similar measure was introduced into the House. This latter measure was preferred for its clarity and was supported by the FDA. Its provisions were merged into the previous Copeland bill, drafted in 1936, and the legislation was passed in the spring of 1938.

Overall, Campbell was pleased. The new act vastly improved the 1906 act in terms of both regulation and enforcement. It brought both cosmetics and medical devices under the control of the FDA and increased penalties for adulteration and fraud. In addition, the FDA was given the authority to establish standards for quality. However, despite its efforts, the FDA did not gain control over advertising; those powers were given to the Federal Trade Commission.

Campbell remained at the FDA until 1944, establishing the enforcement plans for the 1938 act.

Hear It Firsthand

The Center for Oral History captures and preserves the stories of notable figures in chemistry and related fields, with over 425 oral histories that deal with various aspects of science, of scientists, and of scientific practices. For more information please visit CHF’s Oral History Program or e-mail oralhistory@

Connect with CHF


Distillations Podcast logo
Listen to the latest episodes of CHF’s award-winning podcast.

Historically Grounded Perspectives

The Center for Contemporary History and Policy explores issues ranging from energy to medicine on CHF's blog, Periodic Tabloid.