Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the Life of a Town (Chapter 20)

Published April 6, 2001 | Informational - Historic Articles | Automatically Archived on 6/3/2001

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Chapter 20

A Question of Individual Rights

The annual meeting of the Sudbury Water District had traditionally been an open and shut affair with the biggest question on the agenda whether or not a quorum was present. Once enough people were in the hall, the questions of extending water mains, setting rates and purchasing new equipment were settled with dispatch and everyone was well on the way home by 9 p.m.

But that was before some well-meaning soul suggested that the District add fluoride to the town water. That little article on the 1959 Water District warrant would turn the town upside down for more than a year.

On the surface it sounded like a pretty good idea. After all, there were a ton of kids in town, and leading nutritionists, including Sudbury’s own Dr. Jean Mayer, touted fluoride’s benefits in preventing tooth decay. This was a win-win situation. The expense was minimal compared to the projected savings in dental bills. Anybody who opposed this had to be “a quack or a religious fanatic” according to one proponent.

Quacks and fanatics were in short supply, but Christian Scientists and individual rights advocates were not. When a trial balloon letter to the editor of the Sudbury Citizen supporting fluoridation surfaced, they blasted it as a violation of individual rights and cited independent surveys that indicated fluoride’s role in preventing tooth decay was over-rated

No-one forces their way into our kitchen and demands that we eat only a certain kind of food of which they approve, or not eat at all,” wrote a Sudbury mother of two. “This is a scare campaign,” countered a proponent. “The writer should contact the American Dental Association.”

As the date of the Annual Water District Meeting drew closer, the town divided into opposing camps. The Fluoridationists, led by Mayer, W. L. Pritchard and R. S. Holway, pointed out that fluoride wasn’t a medicine, but a foodstuff related to salt, and cited overwhelming scientific evidence that fluoride was beneficial in the prevention of tooth decay.

Well-meaning people concerned quite properly with basic issues such as personal liberty, public safety and socialization find themselves allied with those who oppose fluoridation on religious grounds,” they said, intimating that this should not happen.

The 200 members of the Citizens Committee Against Fluoridation, led by Buzz Kane, Carlton Ellms and Elizabeth Atkinson, circulated a petition opposing fluoridation on individual rights grounds. “There is no efficient way to fluoridate water individually,” they pointed out. Citizens shouldn’t be forced to dig their own wells or buy bottled water because of the will of the majority.

The proponents took a new tack. They set up all the arguments against fluoridation like so many birds on a fence and attempted to shoot them down, one by one.

The arguments against fluoridation are varied and productive but they all reduce to several major themes,” they said. “Fluoride is a poison; Fluoride is mass medicine and socialized medicine; Fluoride corrodes pipes and equipment (this proved to be true) and is dangerous; Fluoride use is a violation of constitutionally-guaranteed personal liberties; Fluoride use should be handled individually rather than publicly.

“There is no appreciable opposition to the thesis that fluoride is beneficial in preventing tooth decay,” they went on. “There is overwhelming evidence from a Canadian independent study; Fluoride is not a medicine, but a foodstuff related to salt; There is no way to fluoridate water individually.

Then things got nasty. “Those who oppose fluoridation are against children,” sniffed one proponent. “All those who oppose artificial fluoridation are either religious crackpots or quacks.

People knowing both sides of the question want no part of fluoridation,” countered the opposition “Fluoride’s safety has never been proven; costs of the program are grossly underestimated; Fluoride’s acceptance is highly exaggerated. And,” they added, “Every individual under our laws has the right to say what shall be done with his or her body. No other supporting evidence is necessary.

The matter came to a head on February 23, 1959, when 142 voters jammed the Peter Noyes gym-auditorium. Debate was quickly cut off and the fluoridation concept was approved 89-53. There was a mad rush for the door following the vote and the remaining articles on the warrant could not be considered for lack of a quorum. Among them was an article approving funds for the purchase of fluoridation equipment. Suddenly, the District found itself with an authorization to use fluoride, but no equipment with which to carry it out. It was the first adjournment for lack of a quorum in the history of the Water District.

The battle was far from over. The Water Commissioners’ request for equipment funds at a District meeting on May 7 was denied by a 108-96 secret ballot vote. A Special District Meeting was called for November 6 to appropriate money for equipment. Everyone settled in for a long, hot summer.

The fur flew thick and fast with both sides bringing in experts to support their point of view, but the rhetoric, while it attracted more people to the fray, did little to change the outcome. This time the appropriation for equipment was approved by a 178-153 secret ballot vote.

Fluoridation equipment was finally installed at Sudbury’s three pumping stations just three months later. The controversy was over, but the feelings it aroused lasted for a long, long time and there are still people in town who wonder “Did we do the right thing?

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.