There is death in the pot

On the bicentenary of chemist Freidrich Accum, J.D. Dayan and A.D. Dayan discuss how his public-health legacy to expose ‘food adulteration’ has been largely forgotten…

Portrait of chemist Friedrich Accum (1769–1838). Source: Edgar Fahs Smith Collection (P/AC25 M).

The essential importance of using new scientific discoveries in the public interest is a belief that has long been preached, but few have had the drive and understanding to put it into practice.

Some innovators must make great sacrifices in return for ephemeral headlines, whilst others achieve international fame in their lifetime, only to have their names and vital legacies forgotten.

Friedrich Accum is such a scientist, whose contributions to both public and governmental awareness about the extent of food adulteration, its risks to health in the early 19th century and the widespread fraud on consumers have gone tragically neglected, even as we grow ever more concerned about what is in our food.

From Hanover to London

Accum was born on 29th March 1769 in Bückeburg, a small town in the state of Hannover, to a Jewish father who had become a committed Christian[1]. Young Accum’s life was marked by tragedy as his father died when he was only three years old, and his mother was left to raise her large family alone. Instrumental to their fortunes was the family soap business which gave Accum exposure to practical chemistry and no doubt influenced his decision to emigrate to England in 1793 to work for Brande pharmacies in London[2].

By 1800 Accum’s career as a young(ish) scientist was starting to flourish, and he set up a base of operations at 11 Old Compton Street, which he turned into “a unique establishment”[3]. From here Accum took on a diverse range of tasks, from offering commercial chemical analytical services to inventing and producing novel scientific instruments and later offering classes in practical chemistry.

In the early 19th century he became deeply involved in the pioneering installation of gas lighting in London, conducted analyses of natural spring waters and common medicines, as well as acting as an expert witness in legal actions. His frequent scientific work on behalf of the government and growing role as a public intellectual made him nationally known, and he increasingly wrote on matters of general, as well as scientific, interest.

‘A Treatise of Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons’

It was with this background of firmly established respectability that Accum launched into arguably the most important and ultimately most controversial part of his wide-ranging career. Drawing on his scientific abilities as an analyst and his skills as a writer he analysed many samples of the foodstuffs being sold in London, such as bread, milk, flour and sweets and published the findings in his magnum opus, A Treatise of Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons, in 1820, a book better known from its subtitle ‘Death in the Pot’ (II Kings 4:40).

This was not an example of an obscure academic text being amplified into the public consciousness by the excitable media of the day, but rather a skilled scientific communicator and self-publicist scoring a public bullseye with a precisely aimed work. This is exemplified by the biblical quote which Accum deployed, that has since been used as a metonym for the publication itself: “There is death in the pot”.

The core of this explosive work was stated simply by Accum himself at the very beginning when he wrote that he was trying to “exhibit easy methods of detecting the fraudulent adulterations of food, and of other articles, classed either among the necessaries or luxuries of the table; and to put the unwary on their guard against the use of such commodities as are contaminated with substances deleterious to health.”[4]

This was not the first time that Accum had attempted to raise the alarm about poor quality food.  Indeed from almost the start of his time in England he had spoken out against the dangers of adulteration[5], but he now had a firm grasp on its nature and industrial practice.

The reading public agreed, and within a month the entire first print run of 1000 copies had been sold. That did not mean that those who could respond in print accepted his findings and their implications for the health of every consumer and the honesty of manufacturers, importers and retailers.

Critiques and legal issues…

Few of the dissenters refuted his central argument, but some disagreed about the extent of the adulteration crisis, and others believed that his remedy, the deployment of analytical chemistry to detect fraud and dangerous additives, was wildly impractical.

One of the most critical responses appeared in the Quarterly Review which lambasted Accum for being a highly intelligent, snake-oil salesman on the make[6].

Accum’s life after this point is veiled in mystery. What can be said with certainty is that he was accused of having ripped out pages from books in the Royal Institution’s library, and this led to him being embroiled in a series of legal troubles that ended with him jumping bail and returning to Germany.

There he continued writing on the application of analytical chemistry to a diverse range of food related topics, from brewing beer to making bread.

Public opinion appears to have swung quite violently with regards to his guilt, and although his refusal to attend his trial and decision to abscond certainly did his reputation no good, there were nevertheless persistent rumours that he had been framed by those he had accused of introducing ‘Death into the pot’.

Accum’s Legacy?

Whatever the truth of his predilection for page-stealing, there is no doubt that Accum was hugely influential in the rise of campaigning scientists in early 19th century Britain. In many ways Accum’s true successor was Arthur Hill Hassall, the doctor-turned-analyst who, with Henry Letheby, a physician-chemist, acted as chief scientist to the Lancet enquiry in the mid-1800s.

Hassall’s statement in 1855, to the parliamentary committee about the scale of the problem surrounding food adulteration and its significant ‘sanitary bearings’ and possible “remedies for their suppression”, caused such a public outcry that Parliament was no longer able to look the other way on the subject[7].  In 1860 the Act to Prevent the Adulteration of Food and Drink was passed, containing many of Hassall’s suggestions.

From then on, and especially in the era of Gladstonian liberalism, the state would always take a close interest in the quality of food, and the idea of having permanent government chemists review its safety went from a radical novelty to become a standard rule.

What Accum did that was so important was to combine rigorous scientific methods with a pugilistic style and in doing so, whatever his other faults, he helped to pave the path for his intellectual descendants to defend and expand the public good.

Why have we overlooked the bicentenary of Accum’s work when ensuring the quality of foods and medicines has become such an important factor in our lives? It is not too late to celebrate his achievements even if his reputation remains clouded in ignominy.

Words by J. D. Dayan and A.D. Dayan

 

[1] C. A. Browne, ‘Recently Acquired Information concerning Frederick Accum, 1769-1838’, Chymia, Vol. 1, (1948), p.2.

[2] C. A. Browne, ‘The Life and Chemical Services of Frederick Accum’, Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 2 No. 10, (1925), p.833.

[3] R. J. Cole, ‘Friedrich Accum (1769-1838). A biographical study’, Annals of Science, Vol. 7 No. 2, (1951), p.129.

[4] F. Accum, A Treatise of Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons, Project Gutenberg, (2006), p.iii.

[5] C. A. Browne, ‘The Life’, p.1028.

[6] J. Sumner, ‘Retailing Scandal: The Disappearance of Friedrich Accum’, (Re)creating science in nineteenth-century Britain, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, (2007), p.4.

[7] A. Hassall in ‘Adulteration of Food, Drink, And Drugs. Being the Evidence taken before the Parliamentary Committee’, London, (1855), Googlebooks, p.1.

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