McGovern’s insight and a food fight

Pat McGovern’s leadership lessons and the science behind the first US food-safety regulations.

McGovern’s insight and a food fight

Pat McGovern’s leadership lessons and the science behind the first US food-safety regulations.

In 1964, Patrick McGovern ’59 started what would become International Data Group (IDG) with a vision of spreading information about the power of computer technology. When he died at 76 in 2014, he left a multibillion-­dollar global media enterprise as well as MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, which he and his wife, Lore, founded in 2000 with a $350 million gift.

In Future Forward (McGraw-Hill Education, 2018), journalist Glenn Rifkin distills McGovern’s business insights into 10 leadership lessons. Many focus on treating employees well—challenging them to do their best work, encouraging entrepreneurship, and sharing the organization’s success with them. McGovern was legendary at IDG for his “Good News” memos praising exceptional work, and for traveling to every US office in December to hand a signed card and a holiday bonus to each employee—often while offering thanks for a specific achievement.

Rifkin worked for the IDG publication Computerworld from 1983 to 1990. He says he admired McGovern’s determination to foster a culture that was “family-oriented, built on kindness and compassion, giving employees every opportunity to succeed in a collegial way.”

“To me,” Rifkin says, “the idea that you could succeed by doing good and doing the right thing was not only refreshing but important to share with the business world.”

For Deborah Blum, director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Program and founder of its digital magazine, Undark, some of history’s most resonant stories feature forgotten characters. Her latest book, The Poison Squad (Penguin Press, 2018), follows Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemist and MD, in his crusade for US food safety regulations at the dawn of the 20th century, when consumers unwittingly purchased things like formaldehyde-laced milk and borax-dosed butter.

Wiley’s team, known as “The Poison Squad,” recruited “young, robust fellows” to serve as human guinea pigs who tested food containing additives suspected to be harmful. This bold, albeit reckless, research led to the passage of the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

Blum says she began her research with the misconception that all food from this era was farm fresh, but she was shocked to discover deep ties between the chemical and manufacturing industries and the US government. “The Agriculture Department was trying to balance an enormous amount of pressure from industry—not farmers,” she says. “You really saw a lot of the government, not publicly, but privately hand-holding with industry as they worked out a way to do food regulations.”

Food regulation has come a long way. But with food contamination stories still in the news, Blum says, improved safety infrastructure and increased transparency on ingredients are still needed.

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