Write for a Free Booklet: Howard Bishop's Crusade to Decontaminate America
The story of a man who wanted to make the United States a healthier place and the sometimes fuzzy line between science and quackery.
Howard Berkey Bishop often told the story of how in the 1930s he began a campaign to rid the world of addictive substances. While driving his usual route from his home in Summit, New Jersey, to his fluorine plant in Easton, Pennsylvania, he spotted a hitchhiker on the side of the road. Bishop stopped and waved to the young man to get in the car. After a few minutes of small talk the hitchhiker realized he was in for more than a car ride.
“My friend,” Bishop said as he stared into the hitchhiker’s eyes, “which of the following habits would it be hardest for you to give up—liquor, tobacco, coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate bars, or cola drinks?” “Tobacco,” the hitchhiker answered. Bishop started on his sermon, lecturing his passenger on the expense of smoking, that tar in cigarettes caused lung cancer, and that smoking made the body desire alcohol, which would then lead to hard drugs and the eventual loss of mental and physical health. At the end of the ride Bishop turned to the hitchhiker and invited him to hand over his pack of cigarettes and vow to quit smoking right then and there. The hitchhiker hesitated; Bishop asked him to open the glove compartment, which revealed many packs of cigarettes abandoned by other hitchhikers. Impressed, the young man agreed to quit and added his pack to Bishop’s collection.
In many ways Bishop’s training helped him formulate his response to the common pleasures of the day. After leaving the University of Michigan in 1902 the 24-year-old Bishop found a job as an analytical chemist at the General Chemical Company. Bishop understood his body as a carefully balanced chemical system. Adding caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol to this system upset the balance and made him feel sick and weak. By avoiding them he purified his body, leading, he hoped, to a longer and healthier life.
Bishop’s beliefs were likely influenced by the many movements that took health, both physical and moral, as their theme. The antialcohol Prohibition Party was founded in 1869, followed by the Woman’s Christian Temperance League in 1873. Meanwhile, the physical culture movement tried to address the consequences of an increasingly industrialized and sedentary society. And in 1906 Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which enforced accurate labeling of medicines and food.
While working at the General Chemistry Company, Bishop cofounded a number of other businesses, including the Sterling Products Company in Easton. His career took off when in 1930 he developed a method for mass-producing hydrofluoric acid. At the time, the acid was used to refine oil and to make Freon gas for refrigerators. In the 1930s, as European nations rearmed, the demand for oil grew and the hydrofluoric acid industry boomed. Bishop sold off his part in Sterling in 1939, but instead of retiring to an indulgence-free life of leisure, he created the Human Engineering Foundation (HEF). He believed that people could “engineer” themselves to better health by changing their habits and decontaminating their bodies. Through his foundation he could now put his beliefs into action.
For Bishop even one bad habit was one too many and would lead to a cycle of dependency: Caffeine gives you too much of a buzz? Then drink alcohol and smoke to calm yourself down, and then drink more caffeine to increase alertness, and then indulge with more alcohol and tobacco to bring yourself back to where you started.
According to the HEF pamphlets Bishop distributed, this cycle disturbs the chemical balance of the human body, making users irritable, weak, and stupid. Cleansing these chemicals from the body would allow people to make the most of their innate physical and mental abilities. Bishop’s concept of balancing the body’s chemicals is in some ways similar to that of balancing chemical equations, an approach familiar to Bishop both from his student days and later as a chemical engineer.
The man who was convinced the world needed his help to banish nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, and the advertising industry that sustained them started out as a smoker and a coffee drinker. Bishop stopped smoking at age 14 and turned away from coffee at 26 (he only gave up on tea once he realized how much caffeine it contained). He never drank alcohol. After Bishop freed himself from stimulants, he claimed to have improved both his body and his personality.
The HEF only employed a handful of people, but it distributed antidrug leaflets, business cards, and sent many, many letters between 1940 and 1961. The pleas in the leaflets ranged from asking Americans to abstain from caffeine to warning them that even a sip of alcohol could lead to an early death. After the war much of Bishop’s advice was connected with Cold War anxieties; underlying his honest desire for better health for everyone was a fear that the Western world would be unable to defend itself against the Soviet Union. If people could not resist addictive substances, how could they resist Communism without strong bodies and sound minds?
Howard Bishop’s crusade to make America morally and physically healthy is noteworthy if only in its odd optimism. Bishop slathered his pamphlets with gratuitous images of death and destruction because he didn’t care if people responded out of fear or out of understanding, as long as it led them to improve their lives and ensured the safety of their country. He genuinely seems to have believed (almost naively) that if everyone adopted his lifestyle, they would be ushered into a new era of peace and happiness. It’s impressive that he maintained this attitude through multiple wars, the development of the atom bomb, and the invention of countless addictive drugs. Only years after Bishop’s death did the general public accept the connection between smoking and lung cancer, a connection he tried desperately to publicize. The story of the Human Engineering Foundation, an organization run by Bishop until the day he died, tells how one man devoted himself to what he saw as the public good at a time when threats to the individual and to society appeared overwhelming.
The images in this article were taken from the Science History Institute’s archives.