Making the American Mouth: Dentists and Public Health in the Twentieth Century

By Alyssa Picard | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
Behind the Fluorine Curtain

Today, mid-twentieth century opposition to the fluoridation of public water supplies is widely remembered as the province of kooks. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 post-nuclear classic Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, General Jack D. Ripper, his name and character a caustic send-up of Vietnam-era anticommunist militarists, worried that “a foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.” In the view suggested by Kubrick’s portrayal of opposition to water fluoridation—and in the minds of many observers before and since—the addition of fluoride to Americans’ drinking water was a selfevident good, opposed only by the irredeemably paranoid.

Dentists and many popular writers have portrayed water fluoridation as a necessary, welcome, and even inevitable step on the path toward late twentieth-century Americans’ near-maniacal obsession with their teeth. In this view, fluoride was an obvious improvement to Americans’ lives, and the fetishization of aesthetic interventions that followed it an inexorable result of Americans’ improved dental health. This vision of the debate over fluoride, and what came after it, contains some grave errors. Its proponents have an incomplete view of dentists’ motives for advocating water fluoridation—and of the basis for other Americans’ opposition to it. More importantly, they ignore the ways in which the fight over fluoride helped dentists to view collective action for the public good with increasing skepticism, and thereby contributed to the rise of an individualist ethos about dental care at the end of the century.

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