Pipe Dreams: America's Fluoride Controversy

French chemist Henri Moissan isolates fluorine (1886).

French chemist Henri Moissan isolates fluorine (1886). Moissan later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work. Print from Physique Populaire, 1891. Sheila Terry, Sciene Photo Library.

Dean, though, remained careful. When a biochemist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Dental School proposed adding fluoride to suboptimal water supplies, Dean was horrified. Such a wide-reaching step demanded more empirical support, with long-term studies. The bandwagon began to roll without Dean, but he persuaded his colleagues to conduct a serious comparative study. Their test site would be Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Grand Rapids and Beyond

By the time of the trial a consensus had largely formed among both researchers and the public. Nearly everyone (save the reasonably skeptical Dean) expected positive results, and they got them. At the trial’s conclusion in 1959 examiners saw a 55.5% reduction in caries per child. Fluoridated cities often saw half as many cavities per child as did their unfluoridated counterparts. The results appeared irrefutable.

Under pressure from the Wisconsin Fluorine Study Committee, the Public Health Service and the American Dental Association endorsed fluoridation in 1950. Committee leaders John Frisch (of the state dental society) and Frank Bull (of the Wisconsin State Board of Health) demanded action on what they considered compelling preliminary data. The New York Department of Health quickly offered its own endorsement—also midway through a long-term trial. The bandwagon began to roll again.
Eager to speed up the process, the Wisconsin Fluorine Study Committee brought about fluoridation’s first public defeat. Frisch’s campaign for fluoridation had taken him through Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and in 1949 the city council supported a fluoridation proposal. In response, local poet and political gadfly Alexander Y. Wallace denounced fluoride as a poison, writing letters to the editor, protesting and generally antagonizing Frisch and the city council, which eventually rejected the proposal.

Wallace’s protests drew attention from both sides. Frisch and his allies enlisted the help of local women’s groups, which urged the council to reconsider. After rejecting the proposal in July, by November the council reversed itself: fluoridation would happen. Wallace responded by gathering signatures, forcing a referendum on the issue and taking the decision out of the council’s hands; in September 1950 the public would decide.

But in May 1950 the City Council secretly ordered fluoridation to begin. Council members assumed Frisch and his team’s expertise would win the day over Wallace’s rabble-rousing. Wallace, discovering the subterfuge, denounced the council, framing the issue as a group of outsiders looking to experiment on the population of Stevens Point. He gathered his own group of experts, all of whom urged caution, much like Dean before them. Wallace printed handbills featuring a skull and crossbones: “Get the Poison Out of Our Drinking Water,” they declared. He held rallies where supporters sang (to the tune of “Goodnight, Irene”) “Goodbye, Fluorine.”

Wallace turned the referendum into a carnival, injecting small-town populism into what Frisch and his committee considered a scientific question—one they’d already answered. Choosing to ignore Wallace’s antics, they banked on their version of rational, evidence-based debate carrying the day. It did not. On September 19, 1950, the citizens of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, rejected fluoridation by a vote of 3,705 to 2,166.

The victory blindsided pro-fluoridationists. It also gave anti-fluoridationists a strategy. They could sow doubt, undermining the perceived authority of so-called experts. When anti-fluoridationists described the accumulating scientific research as “experimental,” voters felt uncomfortable volunteering themselves and their families as guinea pigs. Balancing fewer cavities against unknown potential harm, many voters decided against fluoridation.

Wallace’s grass-roots populism caught the national media’s attention, and soon other activists took up the fight. Opponents called fluoride “rat poison” and questioned the benevolence of government scientists seemingly eager to experiment on American citizens. They pointed to incomplete studies and urged caution. Most viewed fluoridation as government overreach—one to be opposed through democratic processes—but a small minority saw a darker picture. With cold-war paranoia on the rise, fluoride became a favorite target for anti-Communist literature.

At first, typewritten pamphlets and mimeographed sheets, passed hand to hand, carried the anti-fluoride message. But by the late 1950s more prominent right-wing groups began to endorse the conspiracy theory. The February 9, 1959, issue of The Dan Smoot Report cited Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, in which government-mandated drugs enthrall and placate the populace. “How could ruling authorities ever manage to give drugs to an entire population?” asked Smoot. His answer: via water supplies, just like fluoridation.

Smoot never directly blamed Communists for fluoridation, but rather worried that “the ground work is already being done by fine, civic-minded, well-intentioned people who cannot be made to understand that they are helping to open a Pandora’s box of evil.”

The John Birch Society endorsed Smoot’s analysis, as did other writers less careful in their rhetoric. The March 31, 1960, issue of The Independent (“A Died-in-the-Wool Yankee-Doodle Journal of Patriotism for Vigilant Constitutionalists”) declared unequivocally, “Former Communists have stated that fluoridation is known to Communists as a method of Red Warfare,” and implied that the U.S. Public Health Service had been infiltrated by Communists.