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Historical marker preserves story of Grand Rapids' role addressing tooth decay in the 1940s

City of Grand Rapids Fluoridation historical marker
City of Grand Rapids Fluoridation historical marker

Advances in public health around the world are grounded in four areas: fluoridation, immunization, water purification and pasteurization. In the 1930s, the U.S. Public Health Service determined tooth decay “an urgent public health problem.” As part of NPR’s series on historical markers, Off the Mark, WGVU revisits Grand Rapids’ fluoride story with two dentists who lived it.

On January 25, 1945, Grand Rapids became the first city in the world to add fluoride to its public water supply.

“It’s a minor miracle that water fluoridation happened when it did because it probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.” Dr. James Wieland practiced dentistry in Grand Rapids for more than 40 years. “I think you really have to start this story earlier. How fluoride was discovered? In Colorado Springs they had natural water supply and the kids all had brown teeth, but they didn’t get any decay.”

The two men are seated in a laboratory; Dean is on the left in right profile, he holds fluorotic tooth enamel which they are examining; a microscope is on the bench in front of Dean.
The National Library of Medicine believes this item to be in the public domain.
The two men are seated in a laboratory; Dean is on the left in right profile, he holds fluorotic tooth enamel which they are examining; a microscope is on the bench in front of Dean.

That was back in the late1920s. The U.S Public Health Service began sampling water supplies determining the severity of brown tooth correlated with fluoride concentrations. Dr. H. Trendley Dean named the condition “fluorosis.” And in 1935 the Public Health Service deemed it “An acute and urgent public health problem.” Too much fluoride in the water brown teeth but no decay. None or not enough… “At six years of age, 80% of the children had an average of 14 cavities.” Dr. Chase Klinesteker is also a retired Grand Rapids dentist. He was involved in the city's fluoride story.

“And I knew a dentist, Dr. Willard Vermeulen, I talked with him and he said back in the 30s he would reserve Saturday mornings for removing all the teeth of teenagers because their teeth were just rotted stubs. It was a very severe problem back then.”

The historical marker located in downtown Grand Rapids documents events. Dr. Wieland was on the marker committee co-authoring its text.

Dr. Jim Wieland holding City of Grand Rapids proclamation.
Patrick Center
WGVU Public Media
Dr. Jim Wieland holding City of Grand Rapids proclamation.

Historical marker text: The city, along with the U.S. Public Health Service, the Michigan Department of Health, and the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, began a ten-year study to determine the effectiveness of fluoride in the prevention of tooth decay.

 Dr. Klinesteker recalling, “My dad was involved in getting the fluoride into Grand Rapids’ study in 1945.”

Historical marker text: The city was chosen as a test site because of its large population of school-age children; its closeness to Lake Michigan, which is mostly free of natural fluoride; and its proximity to Muskegon, which served as the control city.

Dr. Klinesteker was attending Grand Rapids Public Schools, “I was five years old in 1945 when they started the study. And we chewed a little piece of wax and spit into a bottle. They took our lactobacillus count, and they did an exam on us.”

20,000 school children participated. World War II was winding down. A nation had united in the effort. Fluoridating the water was a government effort, too. Dr. Wieland says the study's timing came at just the right time. “If it had happened at any other time, even a year or two later, it probably wouldn’t have happened.”

That’s because an anti-fluoride movement began making claims it violated their rights and questioned health safety with the instruction what they called “medicine” into the public water supply. “It’s not a medication. It’s not a chemical. It’s an element. A natural element.”

While that is true, the counter narrative stuck. Nearly two decades passed when Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 political satire, Dr. Strangelove referenced it. The scene from the Cold War dark comedy suggesting Americans were compromised by fluoride. But the science behind the research was no joke.

Historical Marker text: By 1955 the study had shown a sixty-five percent reduction in tooth decay and led to the adoption of fluoridation as an accepted public health measure.

City of Grand Rapids fluoride historical marker dedication, Dr. John Bouws (left), Dr. James Wieland (center), Dr. Chase Klinesteker (right).
Dr. Chase Klinesteker
City of Grand Rapids fluoride historical marker dedication, Dr. James Wieland (center), Dr. Chase Klinesteker (right).

CREST COMMERICAL: “Look ma, no more cavities!” Fluoride in toothpaste.

Dr. Wieland says the 1950s are considered the Golden Age of Dentistry as care and efficiencies improved. Klinesteker agrees. “Periodontics, endodontics, orthodontics, braces, gum disease, all the specialties in dentistry grew up because of the fluoridation.”

Fluoride is now common in U.S. water systems and around the world. One part per million of it does the trick. In 2016, the U.S. government estimated that for every dollar spent on fluoridation reaped a $32 dental care benefit. Dr. Klinesteker pointing out the impact fluoride has had, “A smile is an important thing, but speech also. And digestion and being free of pain are important things in people’s lives. Grand Rapids is a part of that. I feel fortunate to be a part of that.”

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.