Sinking His Teeth into…Fluoridation


Fifty years ago this October, one of the hardest-fought battles of the cold war ended with the turn of a faucet — New York City taps were finally running with fluoridated water.

Luther Gulick, a key member of the Committee to Protect Our Children’s Teeth — as the advocates under Dr. Benjamin Spock had styled themselves –played a major part in that victory, using his skills as a public administrator to marshal the scientific evidence and persuade his hesitant friend Mayor Robert F. Wagner to take a forceful stand against opponents raising claims of danger and forced medication and clamoring for a referendum (where fear would likely carry the day). That story will be told elsewhere.


But here is an intriguing nexus. Baruch’s Newman Library housing the IPA Collection of the Gulick papers, with files on the fluoridation controversy, is also home to another historic collection on loan from the Museum of Public Relations.

That collection is heavily based on the storied career of Edward Bernays (1891-1995), the so-called Father of Public Relations, nephew of  Sigmund Freud and a hugely influential force in the shaping of 20th century opinion. Among the many causes to which Bernays quietly lent his talents was fluoridation, according to the journalist Christopher Bryson whose 2004 book, “The Fluoride Deception,” recounts interviews with the centenarian Bernays for the B.B.C. Bernays, he wrote, had represented Alcoa with its polluting fluoride byproducts and counseled New York City’s Health Commissioner, Leona Baumgartner on strategies to promote fluoridation, a process Bernays called “the engineering of consent.”

The prospect of two great collections buttressing each other in the Newman Library archives sent us rushing to the shelves of books by and about Bernays. Did the fluoride industry really use fluoridation to change the chemical’s image from “poison to panacea”, as Bryson’s book put it?

Alas, evidence in the Bernays materials at hand was scant. Suspiciously or not, Bernays, seemed to steer clear of fluoridation in his writings. The record, Bryson writes, is to be found in Bernays’s letters in the Library of Congress.

2 thoughts on “Sinking His Teeth into…Fluoridation

  1. Fascinating story, Ralph (if a bit “watered-down” for this space)! I look forward to reading the more comprehensive version in the near future– of a chapter little known in public health history.

    • Thanks, Shelley, faithful reader. Yes, fluoridation is a long story and there’s much more to be told…

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