The Weird and Kind of Disgusting History of Fluoride


The Center for Disease Control has called community water fluoridation one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 20th century. This is due to its effectiveness, and low cost. In fact, the American Dental Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, US Public Health Service, and World Health Organization all advocate for fluoridating community water supplies. But, we haven’t always reaped the oral-health benefits of fluoride. Actually, until recently, we haven’t even fully understood the full scope of fluoride.  

The Colorado Brown Stain

 In 1901, a young dental school graduate named Frederick McKay moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado to open a dental practice. Upon his arrival, he was astounded to observe that many of the locals suffered from brown stains on their teeth. Sometimes, these stains were so dark that it appeared as if their teeth were caked in dark chocolate. After observing this, McKay frantically searched for information about the disorder causing the stains.  

Teeth mottling (dental fluorosis)

McKay invited a renowned dental researcher named Dr. G.V. Black to help him get to the root of the stain affecting those in Colorado Springs. In 1909, Black accepted the invitation and arrived in Colorado. For six years, the two worked together and found that nearly 90% of children native to Colorado Springs suffered from the stain. They gave the brown stain a more technical name (tooth mottling, which was later changed to fluorosis) and were surprised to discover that mottled teeth were highly resistant to tooth decay. While they couldn’t identify a cause for tooth mottling, they noted the anti-cavity effects of the stain and moved on.  

Up to Colorado

In 1923, McKay went from Colorado Springs to Oakley, Idaho to investigate a recent uptick in tooth mottling in Oakley. The parents told him that the stains began appearing shortly after Oakley constructed a communal water pipeline to a warm spring five miles away. After examining and finding the water to be normal, McKay advised town leaders to abandon the pipeline and use a nearby spring as their water source. The town obliged, and within a few years the brown stains disappeared.  

McKay still hadn’t found the exact cause, but he isolated the source of tooth mottling. 

Arkansas Aluminum

McKay then travelled to Bauxite, Arkansas, a town owned by an aluminum plant called the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA). The residents of Bauxite were afflicted with mottled teeth, but nearby towns were not. McKay asked the town to conduct a study on the water, and returned to Colorado.  

ALCOA’s chief chemist, H.V. Churchill, analyzed the water with more powerful tools than available to McKay when he was in Oakley. Several days after the study was conducted, Churchill found high levels of fluoride in the water at Bauxite. At first, he couldn’t believe it, and he promptly ordered a new sample. The second test showed the same results and compelled Churchill to write a 5 page letter to McKay.  

The letter informed McKay of the fluoride findings, and Churchill urged him to test samples from Colorado Spring and Oakley for increased levels of fluoride.  

McKay obliged, and within months, he found the answer to the brown stain problem: increased levels of fluoride were in fact staining teeth.  

National Institute of Health (NIH)

Upon learning of McKay and Churchill’s findings, the National Institute of Health (NIH) decided to investigate water-borne fluoride, and the effects on teeth. Drs Trendley Dean and Elias Elvove first came up with a method to measure fluoride levels in water. Together, they developed a state-of-the-art method to measure fluoride levels in water with an accuracy of 0.1 parts per million (ppm). By the late 1930’s the NIH concluded that fluoride levels up to 1.0 ppm could not cause enamel fluorosis.  

But does Fluoride help with Cavities?

Upon finding that miniscule amounts of fluoride would not stain teeth, the NIH went back to McKay’s writings where he observed the cavity resistance of those with the brown stain. Dean wondered whether adding fluoride to drinking water at physically and cosmetically safe levels would help fight tooth decay. This hypothesis, Dean told his colleagues, would need to be tested. In 1945, Grand Rapids Michigan voted to add fluoride to its drinking water. The 15 year study would be the first of its kind. After just 11 years, Dean announced that the cavity rate among children in Grand Rapids had dropped more than 60%. This was a major scientific breakthrough and helped revolutionize dental care.  

Fluoride Today

Today, fluoride is widely acknowledged as a way to prevent cavities. In the United States, community water fluoridation costs just over 1 dollar per person every year, which is a low price to pay for better oral health. Check online to see if your town uses a fluoridated water source. If not, we suggest buying fluoridated toothpaste to get your daily dose of cavity-preventing fluoride.  

Sticky History – Where Does Chewing Gum Come From?

In our history of odd oral cleaning techniques and tools, humans have used animal hair to make toothbrushes; we’ve crushed shells to use as toothpaste; and we’ve re-purposed tortoise blood as mouthwash. Yes, humanity has had its ups and downs when discovering and designing medical technologies. One of the oldest methods used to maintain our mouth-health is still widely popular today: gum.

Prehistoric Gum

Did you know that chewing gum has existed in some form or another since the Neolithic period? In fact, 6,000 year old chewing gum has been found with teeth marks in it, made from birch bark tar. Tree bark is a very popular source of gum, and many cultures derived gum from trees.

Mastic tree gum.

Ancient Greeks

The ancient Greeks didn’t invent gum, nor were they the first to chew it. However, they are one of the most well known historical cultures to be documented first chewing gum en masse. The ancient Greeks chewed the resin contained in the bark of the mastic tree. Grecian women would chew the bark to clean their teeth and freshen their breath. Mastic gum actually has antiseptic properties, and was believed by the Greeks to contribute to better oral health.

The sapodilla tree.

Ancient Mayans

The Ancient Mayans of Central America are credited with creating an intricate calendar, developing basic astronomy, and writing in their own hieroglyphs. The Mayans were way ahead of their time in terms of trade, technology and architecture, but they were also very studious farmers, which led them to the sapodilla tree. The Mayans would boil the sap of the sapodilla tree and use it for glue, and in religious ceremonies. Sometimes, the boiled sap was given to children to chew and called “cha.”


Modern Gum

Gum had a major advancement in the 1848, when American businessman John B. Curtis saw a market opportunity for chewing gum. Curtis began making gum out of the resin of the spruce tree – a popular form of gum among Native Americans of the time. Curtis called his gum “State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum.” For the first few years of his new business, selling gum was hard. However, Curtis saw a major uptick in sales when he started rolling his gum sugar, and he began expanding his operations. In fact, Curtis’ business – Curtis & Son – is credited with inventing the machinery responsible for mass-producing gum.

Try Xylitol!

Today, gum comes in all shapes, sizes and flavors, but some gum actually cleans your teeth as you chew it. Gum sweetened with Xylitol – a natural sugar replacement – cleans teeth by stimulating the production of saliva, which naturally cleans teeth by washing away food debris. Chewing Xylitol gum is not a substitute for regular brushing and flossing, but it is a good tool for cleaning your teeth on the go!

Would you Brush your Teeth with Toast? Your Ancestors did.

oldtoothpasteDid you know that dental floss used to be made of silk thread? Or, that toothbrushes used to be made of bone and horse hair? Oral health care has a long and weird history that stretches back to ancient cultures and includes numerous ingredients and tools that have helped carve the path for modern dentistry. Today, we look at the origins of toothpaste and how it has evolved into the product we know today.

5000 – 3000 BC Ancient Egypt

As with many other tools, toothpaste originates in ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians (particularly the pharaohs and wealthy) valued cleanliness and oral health and began experimenting with the first iteration of toothpaste. Their version of toothpaste consisted of rock salt, dried iris flowers, pepper and mint crushed into a fine paste with a bit of water. Some mixtures even included the ashes of ox hooves and burnt egg shells! This mixture led to bleeding gums, but it was surprisingly effective at cleaning teeth, even when compared to what was used just 100 years ago.

Greece and Rome

Around the same time as the Egyptians, Greek and Roman leaders were using the Egyptian mixture, but began experimenting with their own toothpaste. They added more abrasives to their mixture to increase the cleaning power, the most popular of which were crushed bones and oyster shells. The Romans added charcoal to help freshen their breath.

Around 500 BC, ancient China and India used a similar mixture, but added more flavoring ingredients like ginseng, herbal mints and salts.

1700’s gets Toasty

The ancient power cultures had pretty much perfected their form of toothpaste, and it remained popular and used by many upper class people for a long time. And then, toast was introduced. Used toast was ground into a fine powder and used to scrub teeth. While there is no clear origin of using toast as toothpaste, it was a very affordable option for a lot of people.

1824 – Let’s add Some Bubbles

In 1824, a dentist named Dr. Peabody decided to add soap to the ground up toast mixture to enhance the cleaning power. A few decades passed, and then toothpaste makers began adding chalk to their mixtures to create the creamy consistency that we’re familiar with today.

1873 – Mass Production

Colgate began producing toothpaste on a wide scale in 1873, and distributed their toothpaste in jars. In 1892, Dr. Washington Sheffield put toothpaste in a collapsible tube, like the ones used today. That same year, Colgate began distributing toothpaste in tubes similar to the ones we see today.

1914 Welcomes Fluoride

In 1914, it was discovered that fluoride significantly decreased dental cavities.  That same year, it was added into toothpastes to achieve better cleaning results. Soap was eventually phased out in favor of fluoride and sodium lauryl sulphate in the 1940’s.

1987 Edible Toothpaste

To help keep astronauts’ (yes, astronauts) teeth clean while in space, NASA invented an edible toothpaste that could be swallowed after brushing. Edible toothpaste was then repurposed for young children to use, because it did not present a risk if it was ingested.

1989 Shines Brighter

In 1989, Rembrandt marketed the first whitening toothpaste that would “whiten and brighten your smile.” Other toothpaste producers quickly followed suit and now whitening toothpaste is one of the most popular types available.

Toothpaste Today

We’ve come a long way from crushed oysters and ginseng mixtures. Now, there are countless types of toothpastes that have a variety of acute end-goals, and still clean your teeth. Navigating the toothpaste market can be a bit difficult, but we’re here to help. Schedule an appointment in our office to discuss the type of toothpaste that will work best for your child, and what would work best for our entire family.

The Truth about George Washington’s Teeth


George Washington, the first President of the United States and revolutionary general, had dental problems his entire life. When he was inaugurated President in 1789, he only had one real tooth remaining in his mouth. A man known for his strength and resolve, Washington’s great oral pain sometimes made it quite difficult for the renowned orator to deliver speeches, and govern the infant United States.

Early Dentistry Was Not Great

Dentistry in the 18th and 19th Centuries was nowhere near as studied or effective as the modern dental practices used today. Toothbrushes were typically made of animal bone or silver, and the bristles were often made out of hog bristles, or horse and badger hair. Toothpaste was made of crushed seashells or charcoal, and usually was unscented, which lead to awful breath and terrible gum health. When someone had a tooth infection, they would just call the local blacksmith to pull it out for them – without anesthesia – because he had access to a wide variety of metal tools. When Washington was in office, he didn’t have access to laser dentistry, fluoride rinses, real toothpaste, or even floss! No wonder his teeth were in such bad shape.

His Teeth Were Not Wooden

One common myth about Washington was that his dentures were made of wood, this is in fact not true! The first U.S. President had a variety of dentures made of ivory, gold, and even lead. The wooden-toothed myth was most likely born by misconception. Washington often enjoyed port wine after meals, which would stain and crack his ivory teeth, leaving them looking like wood. In fact, John Greenwood, who served as one of his dentists, examined a set of his ivory teeth and wrote back, “the set you sent me from Philadelphia…was very black…Port wine being sour takes off all the polish.” Modern historians and forensic dentists have speculated – and widely agreed – that this was the cause of the wooden teeth myth!

Washington Kept His Lost Teeth

Instead of sharing his lost teeth with the tooth fairy, President Washington collected the teeth that he lost. He intended on saving them to be used as implants in new dentures, and even wrote a letter to his cousin requesting that he ship his lost teeth to him while he was away in New York. However, one of his first set of dentures, made by artist Charles Wilson Peale, used both elephant and human teeth on the lower row, while experts think that the upper row was constructed of cow’s teeth! There is no known record of Washington successfully using his own teeth as implants in a set of dentures, but there are extensive written letters documenting him saving his own teeth.

Washington’s struggle with good dental hygiene reminds us that we are lucky to have modern technology aid us in getting – and keeping – a healthy smile. He called health “among (if not the most) precious gift.” So make America’s founding father proud by brushing and flossing twice per day, for two minutes at a time. We only have one set of teeth, so take care of them!

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