Sunday, September 23, 2012

What would Albert Einstein’s nephew do? Reflections of Duluth’s fluoridation battle fought 50 years ago as the battle continues today in Oregon

By Jim Heffernan
 Portland, Oregon, is going through a fluoridation fight. Yes, just when you thought the issue of adding trace amounts of fluoride to public water supplies to combat tooth decay in children was over everywhere, here it is again -- in the 21st century, no less.

Duluth went through a long and sometimes bitter fluoridation fight almost 50 years ago. I was in the middle of it, not as an advocate for one side or the other, but as a reporter covering the issue for the Duluth daily newspapers.

The pro-fluoridation side won in Duluth, but the antis put up a whale of a fight.

Objection usually centers on the belief by some people that government has no business “medicating” the population. That’s come up in the Portland fight, according to news reports, and it was an argument in Duluth in the early 1960s when our battle royal was fought.

But googling through recent news reports on the Portland battle, one thing is not mentioned that was bitterly argued in Duluth: That fluoridation of water supplies was a communist plot.

Why would the communists sneak fluoride into American water supplies? To undermine public health so that they could take over the United States, was the right-wing theory in the cold war years that many of the fluoridation fights took place. Hard-core conservatives don’t like the government involved in any aspect of health care.

I heard that argument frequently – at every fluoridation debate I covered, in fact – as the two sides in Duluth faced off at public meetings. On the pro side the leader was a prominent dentist. The antis had a well-known businessman and also the wife of the city’s fire chief.

It was she who introduced an entirely new aspect to the battle here that I hadn’t heard before, nor have I heard it since.

I was covering a fluoridation debate at the Duluth Heights Community Club one night when Mrs. Fire Chief pulled me aside as the meeting was breaking up. She was a fervent anti-fluoridation crusader, hardly able to contain her zeal.

Of course I can’t precisely quote her almost 50 years later, but I’ll approximate what she said, putting it in quotation marks for dramatic effect. Taking me by the arm, she said, “Did you know that Albert Einstein’s nephew in Seattle is against fluoridation?”

No, I didn’t, I had to allow. In fact, I didn’t know Albert Einstein even had a nephew in Seattle or anywhere else.

But this experience had a profound effect on me that continues to this day. Whenever I am confronted with an important decision, I ask myself, what would Albert Einstein’s nephew do? I can’t say it’s worked out that well.

Let me finish with a quote from Gen. Jack D. Ripper, the crazed American general in the 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove” that might have propagated the communist plot myth. Here’s Gen. Ripper describing Russians:

“Vodka, that’s what they drink…on no account will a Commie ever drink water, and not without good reason… Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation of water? Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face?”

Gosh, I’ve been drinking Duluth’s fluoridated water ever since and I’m still not a communist.

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