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Women’s Role in Reforming Food Safety
by Lori Valigra
Before U.S. women earned the right to vote in 1920, three female pioneers in food safety endured discrimination to make major contributions to the field. In the 19th century, Amanda Theodosia Jones (1835-1914) came up with the standard for vacuum canning. Effie Alberta Read, PhD, (1871 est.-1930) quietly spent two decades developing micro-chemical procedures to detect adulterated products, work that became crucial for enforcing the first comprehensive U.S. consumer protection law—the 1906 Food and Drugs Act. And later on, Mary Engle Pennington, PhD, (1872-1952) became the first female lab chief at the U.S. FDA, conducting research to make the food supply safer and fresher.
Jones had a penchant for science, but let spiritualism guide her decisions. In 1872, she reportedly received a message from the spirits to write to Professor LeRoy Cooley of Albany, N.Y., who she knew through her sister. The spirits further told her canning could be done in a better way by removing the air in the container. Though she had no prior experience with canning, she and Prof. Cooley were able to collaborate to create the “Jones Method,” also known as the “Pure Food Vacuum Preserving Process(es).” They created the first model in 1873 and were granted five patents to cover the process, two of which were issued to her alone. The method became the standard for canning in the U.S. Jones discovered their method added more flavor to the food, but didn’t remove any nutritional value. It killed bacteria by lack of oxygen instead of just heat.
She also founded the Women’s Canning and Preserving Co. in 1890, but was unable to make a commercial success of it. The company, based in Chicago, employed only women, reportedly the first company to do so. It later was taken over by men after it was apparently unable to sell enough products because it was women-owned and run. Jones continued to invent and in 1906 came up with a vacuum process for drying food. She also created the first automatic safety oil burner, for which she also received a patent.
Dr. Read and Dr. Pennington also experienced gender discrimination, even as they contributed to food safety. Dr. Read earned both a PhD from Cornell University and MD from George Washington University. In acknowledging her contributions during Women’s History Month, the FDA noted that she was among the best trained analysts when she joined the agency’s Bureau of Chemistry in 1907.
“Although Dr. Read did not publish widely, she dedicated herself over the next two decades to developing and executing crucial micro-chemical procedures to detect adulterated products; her work represented an unsung scientific cornerstone in the enforcement of the 1906 Food and Drugs Act, the first comprehensive consumer protection law in the U. S.,” according to FDA’s report.
Dr. Read developed a new way to identify artificially colored imported teas. They were illegal because artificial color was used to conceal inferior products. Her method offered rapid reliable detection. It could be run with equipment found in most laboratories. In one high-profile case in 1912, her method helped secure a judgment against 1,000 packages of artificially colored tea from a Tennessee importer who wanted to pass off an inferior product.
Dr. Pennington became the first female lab chief at the FDA. She studied chemistry and biology at the Towne Scientific School at the University of Pennsylvania, which at the time did not award BA degrees to women, so instead she received a “certificate of proficiency.” In the 1890s, she went on to earn a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, one of the only schools in the country to grant such degrees to women.
After the Pure Food and Drugs Act, also known as the Wiley Act, became law in 1906, FDA chief Harvey Wiley asked Dr. Pennington to head the Bureau of Chemistry’s Food Research Lab. While Wiley knew she was the best person for the job, according to the FDA, he also knew not everyone would agree, so he disguised her gender by referring to her as M.E. Pennington.
The FDA stated her research “helped revolutionize the food supply, making more safe fresh foods available at affordable prices, particularly in newly industrialized areas of the country.” Her cold storage research at the FDA led to the recognition that fresh foods could be kept longer when stored at a constant low temperature, which also kept bacterial counts low. That discovery proved important in establishing food quality benchmarks.
Dr. Pennington left the FDA in 1919, but kept working on food preservation and cold storage. The FDA noted that her research influenced Clarence Birdseye as he perfected his flash-freezing technique. According to the FDA, today’s supermarket refrigerated and frozen food sections are the direct result of her pioneering work.
Valigra is a writer based in Harrison, Maine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.