Listen Now: The Invention of Toothpaste
Moment of Indiana History is a weekly two-minute radio program exploring Indiana History. The series is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations (IPBS).
Prior to the mid-1950s regular dental hygiene didn’t hold much promise for oral health. Toothpastes had been formulated since ancient times with ingredients ranging from burnt oyster shells to ground areca nuts. Americans using a soap-and-water-based dentifrice were developing around 700 million cavities a year. Proctor and Gamble recognized the market potential for a product with benefits beyond the merely cosmetic. The Cincinnati-based firm subsidized a major research project at Indiana University exploring the use of stannous fluoride–a compound of fluoride and tin–in the prevention of tooth decay.
Beginning in 1950, Procter and Gamble committed more than three million dollars to research undertaken over the next fourteen years by a trio of scientists on the Bloomington campus. Biochemist Harry Day, who specialized in the nutritional value of trace elements, teamed up with dentist Joseph C. Muhler and inorganic chemist William Nebergall. The team produced a cavity-preventing prototype by 1952 and proceeded to run clinical trials on 1500 children and 400 adults in the area. After demonstrating that a good half of the participants showed significant decrease in dental caries, Procter and Gamble was ready to release Crest toothpaste. On February 15, 1955, Dr. Muhler sent a tube to IU president Herman B. Wells, announcing that the product would be test-marketed starting that day. The president proffered his congratulations and promised to try out the toothpaste himself.
Crest was unveiled at the start of 1956 with a memorable ad campaign featuring children’s portraits by Norman Rockwell captioned with the boast, “Look, Mom! No Cavities!” In 1960, the brand distinguished itself further upon receiving the first Seal of Acceptance from the American Dental Association. IU held the patent for Crest’s formulation from 1958-1975, during which time Procter and Gamble paid royalties to the university for exclusive use of the compound. Those funds helped to establish the Oral Health Research Institute at the School of Dentistry in Indianapolis. The institute, built in 1968, is a world-renowned product-testing site.
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