In August 1950, when the little town of Ninety Six fluoridated its water supply, it was the first in South Carolina to do so. It took 23 years for Greenville to follow suit.
The fight to add fluoride to our water was long and contentious. It is now almost totally forgotten.
But the people and the organizations who led the battle for science and dental health, and the mayor and City Council that finally agreed to it should be remembered.
Tests that began in 1931 showed that adding tiny amounts of fluoride to water would substantially reduce cavities in children. In January 1945, Grand Rapids, Michigan, became the world’s first city to add the chemical to its supply.
Sodium fluoride, added at the rate of one part to one-million part water (today in Greenville it is.7 per million part), is a colorless, odorless, tasteless element that reduces tooth decay in children by 60 percent and costs less than a dollar a year per person
Almost immediately after Ninety Six adopted it, Ft. Mill, Rock Hill and Hartsville began fluoridation. In the spring of 1952, after recommendations from the Greenville Dental Society and the Board of Health, City Council scheduled a referendum for July 8, 1952.
The only controversy at the time focused on who would pay for it: the Water System, the Board of Health, or the Legislative Delegation. The advisory referendum approved fluoridation by a vote of 5,008 to 2,078.
The water system did not rush to make the system a reality, however. In fact, what with legal issues and delays in ordering and delivering supplies, it wasn’t until December 1953 —15 months later — that water commissioners announced that Greenville fluoridation would begin on Jan. 1, 1954.
Beginning on Jan. 2, the city and the water works were flooded with complaints. Callers claimed it caused nausea and watery eyes, and made the water “act like molasses” during hair-washing.
Fluoridation, however, had not yet begun. A final ingredient had not been delivered, so the Water Commission, without announcing the delay, didn’t begin fluoridation until Jan. 20.
In the following months, letters — some in favor, most violently opposed — flooded The Greenville News editorial page. Writers argued that fluoridation was untested, was too expensive, and was socialized medicine, and also noted that if God hadn’t added fluoride to water, why should man?
Greenville dentists wrote in favor; so did Louis Williams, a Furman biology professor, whose letters calmly and articulately answered those opposed. But within months, City Council yielded to a demand for another referendum.
Considering the amount of heat that the issue had generated, the turnout this time was surprisingly small, but nevertheless 2, 815 voted against fluoridation and 2,633 in favor. A week later, fluoridation in Greenville terminated.
The closeness of the advisory referendum led to a third vote, this one on June 13, 1956. Those against were even more vociferous in their determination to end what they considered the poisoning of Greenville water. The procedure this time was defeated by a vote of 4,216 to 2,847.
A decade later, the Jaycees, a potent force for community betterment, revived it, in part because it was a national Jaycee priority. (The well-advertised addition of fluoride to toothpaste in 1960 might have helped.) A committee led by CPA Charles T. Smith, attorney Harvey Sanders, and businessman Frank Mims gathered information from the 36 other South Carolina cities using fluoridation. They had the total support of the Greenville Dental Society and Medical Association.
They also sponsored an informal survey in the Greenville Piedmont newspaper, asking, “Do you favor fluoridation of city water as a means of reducing tooth decay?”
“Yes,” voted 69 percent of respondents.
With the support of dentists and physicians, survey results in hand, and legal justification (in 1966 the South Carolina Supreme Court had upheld the City of Columbia’s right to fluoridate), they asked Mayor David Traxler to put the issue on the Council agenda.
The Jaycee committee members refused to accept a referendum; they wanted a City Council vote. On Nov. 14, 1967, Council heard them.
It was a well-advertised event. In addition to a busload of Jaycees, they had an all-star cast of supporters. Among them were distinguished pathologist Dr. Donald Kilgore, Furman chemist Dr. Scott Pyron, and community leaders including Eugene Stone of Stone Manufacturing and Dr. David Francis, the pastor of Springfield Baptist Church, who spoke last.
Dr. Francis noted that fluoridation was cheap and would provide “a magnificent benefit to all people in this county, whether they are rich or poor, educated or not.”
The opposition, led by attorney Lehman Moseley, called for either a referendum or the distribution of fluoride pills through dentists.
Councilman Cooper White made the motion to approve fluoridation. The vote was 3 to 3; Mayor Traxler broke the tie by voting against the motion. Instead, City Council voted to pay for fluoridation pills to be distributed through dentists’ offices.
After the meeting, according to Dr. Jim Gaines, a dentist and Jaycee member who was deeply involved in the issue and who inspired this column, Mayor Traxler came up to him and two of the Jaycee supporters, and said, “Why did you have to bring them into it?”
This was a time of struggle for school integration and civil rights. Fluoridation was most helpful for children who did not see a dentist every six months, who did not eat healthy foods, and who did not brush their teeth. Many of those children were black and poor, and Council members knew it.
Four years later, Council had almost totally changed. Schools were integrated. Max Heller was mayor. Greenville was the only city in the state without fluoridation. Fluoride pills hadn’t worked. The South Carolina Supreme Court had declared tax-financed advisory referenda illegal.
In October 1971, after a public hearing, City Council voted 6-1 to fluoridate Greenville’s water.
Three months later, at the urging of the Water Commission, Council even passed a fluoride ordinance. But then two Christian Scientists sued the city on the basis of freedom of religion, charging that fluoride was a medicine. That suit gathered dust until March 1973, when a federal judge finally dismissed it.
In May 1973, Greenville began — briefly — fluoridating its water. In December, however, there were problems, and the process was discontinued. It resumed in May 1974. Finally, after twenty years, Greenville had fluoridation.
(With thanks to James H. Gaines, DDS)
Comments? Questions? Write Judy.Bainbridge@furman.edu.