By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald
There was never a bigger crowd for a city council meeting than on March 22, 1965 when the final “showdown” for the Fluoride Debate would take place. The old auditorium of the Grammar School/City Hall (circa 1880-1978) was packed. In 1965, the huge auditorium with a 500-600 capacity was brim full of highly emotional and vocal proponents and opponents of putting fluoride in Clinton’s water supply. The Dental Society and all civic organizations, except one, led the fight to put this substance in the water supply. The PTA with the strong leadership of Mrs. Lou Lyon were leaders, but the key individual was a young, pediatric dentist, Dr. Curtis Layton. He said, “I was nervous about it, but the Society asked me to do it, and as time went on, it was fun to support the issue.” He gained confidence as he studied the facts and found them to be so powerful. Leading the opposition was Mrs. Margaret Van Verth and Dr. Burkert a local chiropractor and the community was once again split down the middle as they had been in 1952, when it had first come up.
This time, however, the city council was almost unanimous in favor of the issue. They were led by Byron Starr whose wife had been a leader in the 1952 try. Once, one of the audience said that fluoride was poison, to which Starr responded, “if it is a poison, we’d better check DeWitt to see if their death rate is higher than Clinton's, since their fluoride count is quite high. After councilman Daryll Smith read the ordinance for the first time, he turned and asked City Health Physician, Dr. Arno Jensen what he thought, to which he responded, “I am 100 percent in favor of this ordinance and I can speak for all the doctors of Clinton!”
After its original founding, fluoride had not taken hold in the country, but when World War II began, two million young people received physicals for induction, and it found that 200,000 of them were rejected for bad teeth alone! This started a wave of fluoride use in the water supplies throughout the country. Today, the encyclopedias, internet, and other reliable sources note that 90% of all large towns and cities have fluoride in the water, and no deleterious effect has been noted and many beneficial results have been found.
Taken in small quantities, fluoride strengthened teeth and many communities around the country had put very small quantities of it in their water supply with excellent results for the children’s teeth. DeWitt, Iowa, naturally in its water, had almost exactly the amount necessary. 1.2 ions per million was the prescribed amount which would cut dental cavities by 40 to 70 percent. Clinton had a natural amount , which was not enough and hundreds of children had profuse dental cavities, visually noticeable to people in the community.
Clinton was one of four large towns in Iowa not to have fluoride in the water and a strong debate had been going on since at least 1952. The local PTA and dentists had been pushing for its use and a large and energetic group challenged its inception in 1965.
The debate raged on with many arguments on both sides. The opponents alluded to poisonous effects of the chemical and the fact that anybody who wanted it could add it to their own water supply. Some people on the fringe call it “a plot to make our citizens docile” to which there was an audible, PLEASE! uttered from councilman Starr. It was also said that it was Socialism or Communistic to put this substance in the water.
Unlike the 1952 debate, the council moved swiftly and had a private meeting on March 6, 1965 to plan the move to fluoride. The meeting was open to the public and press, but they asked that the issue be “off the record” until the council could bring it up for debate. The news media called this “subterfuge” and printed an article anyway. Letters poured in and the City Hall auditorium was packed for the first reading on March 11. This would not have been the case today with the Home Rule Charter, and the Open Meeting Law, because a petition would have been circulated and a city wide vote would have occurred. Would the issue have passed?
A number of other things were on the side of the council: During that very week Selma, Alabama was prominently in the news; St. Mary’s was playing for the State basketball Championship(with 6’10” Steve Bergman, Bob Josten, et al.) against DesMoines Roosevelt; the big flood was coming; Astronauts were orbiting the earth (Virgil Grissom in Gemini); television was big; anti-smoking was taking hold; and bowling was at its zenith with an eight page supplement in the Herald. Mercy Hospital had to be saved from financial ruin and these many news distractions perhaps helped the focus to swing away from “fluoride.”
Over the years the city hall chambers were filled with many controversies and the old grammar school was use from 1935-1978 at the time between the building of Washington Junior High School and the construction of the new city hall. Some people say that they liked the old facility, especially with its large city council chambers so that plenty of spectators could view the proceedings. Do these battles sound familiar?
When it was all said and done, Ordinance No. 1191 was passed March 22, 1965.
As an after thought, there is a humorous footnote told by Dr. Layton that he “implied that fluoride would be added on the next Monday to the water supply and that anyone who felt a negative effect should notify City Hall. Many notes, letters, and phone calls came forth. It was then announced that due to a technical problem, fluoride hadn't been added right away and it would be another week until it would be in the water supply.” There was never another complaint registered in all these years.