Robert Earl Ley Jr.: 1950s Fluoridation Crusade


Ley RE Jr council at large Daily REporter 9 Nov 1955

The 1950s were a busy decade for grandpa Robert Earl Ley Jr. In addition to serving as at-large city councilman for Dover, Ohio, he headed county dentists and was an active voice urging for fluoridation of water supplies to counteract tooth decay in 94% of area school children.

1950s Busy for Dental Ed, R.E. Ley Jr.

From the moment the first Leys in our family left Bavaria and settled in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, they threw themselves into the lives of their community.

Fourth great-grandfather Karl Ley, a saddler and Civil War supplier for the Union Army, also served on the local school board in Shanesville. Wife Susanna Vogelsang Ley, also a German immigrant, was elected president of the women’s guild.

Son Augustus established the first creamery in the county and was proprietor of a long-running dry goods store on the canal in Port Washington. He also served as treasurer and clerk for Salem Twp.

Grandson Charles Henry Ley served on the board of education and city council before gaining election and reelection as Tuscarawas County treasurer from 1911-15.

And great-grandson Robert Earl Ley Sr. — my great-grandpa — after first assisting his father in the treasury office, was a charter member of the Dover Kiwanis Club, a member of the Masonic Lodge in New Philadelphia and of the Shrine and affiliated organizations, in addition to heading up the Tuscarawas County Dental organization.

Which brings us to the ambitious Robert Earl Ley Jr.

Carrying on a family tradition of service, Grandpa Ley would serve on the Dover City Council and participate in Dover Kiwanis, Dover American Legion, Dover Lions Club (as president), Dover Elks Lodge No. 975 (as exalted ruler), the Dover Masonic Lodge (achieving 32nd degree), Tadmor Shrine, Royal Order of Jesters, and Chef de Gare of the 40 et 8 Voiture 117.

Whew.

Probably, grandpa was at his most civic-ally bustling during the decade of the 1950s. In addition to his role as councilman-at-large in Dover, in 1954, his election as president of the Tuscarawas County Dental Society melded his professional and public lives, and gave him the stage for proposing a contentious. but noble, idea: the fluoridation of the public water supply.

Survey: 94% of School Children with Tooth Decay

The discussion seems to have kicked off with particular fervor around 1953, when a state board of health trailer stopped in town to check for tooth decay in elementary school children. The findings were shocking: 94% of the more than 5,000 kids surveyed were found to have dental problems, according to the reporting of Paul Mico, county TB health educator.

In a Dover Daily Reporter article of June 2, 1954, Mico compares the county’s struggles with what Grandpa Ley encountered in the Pacific during World War II. In this case the Philippines came out on top of the U.S. by a great margin, Mico wrote:

Dr. Ley had the occasion once to check the teeth of 200 Philippine children, and even though their nutritional standards were far below ours, he found only two children with decayed teeth.

One in 100 there, 94 in 100 here. Why the great difference? Candy, pop, gum and other highly refined sweets were practically non-existent in the Philippines when Dr. Ley was there, but they are consumed in huge quantities here.

Aside from the statistical gap, why the fretful concern? The attitude of the day, as Mico related, was that baby teeth weren’t worth caring for, since they were just going to fall out anyway, and that adults could always replace rotten teeth with artificial sets. Dangerous misconceptions, since tooth decay in children can lead to malformed jaws and facial structures, and adults can develop bacterial infections leading to secondary diseases.

Yelchchchhc, right?

County dentists responded to the dilemma with a prescription of healthy nutrition, regular checkups, cleanings and X-rays, and the topical application of fluorine. But the throwing in of these well-trained and civic-minded professionals behind the idea to add fluoridation to the public water supply was met with typical resistance, Mico wrote:

One of the great mysteries in the field… is the great difficulty encountered… in initiating fluoridation of community water supplies. Adding fluoride … will reduce dental decay by 65 percent. It is not dangerous to health; does not add taste, color, odor or hardness to water, costs only 5 to 14 cents per person per yar; and is endorsed by a great many national and state health agencies.

By late summer, county dentists, led by Grandpa Ley, had voted formally to take up the cause of public education and push for fluoridation, according to a September 1954 vote.

Over the following months, Robert Earl Ley Jr. led the charge, presenting to the Lions Club a week after the dentists’ vote and formalizing the platform at a dentists’ meeting in October.

As Mico quoted Grandpa Ley in an October 14 Daily Reporter article:

We are not being selfish in any manner, what-so-ever (Ley said). If every dentist in this county could work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from now on, we still couldn’t treat all the people who need treatment. We are facing a great problem and are willing to do everything we can to show the people how they can help themselves.

The dentists concluded by calling on “every PTA, CCL, social and civic group, and school” to join in the cause. But the effort would play out over the course of years.

Carrying Fluoridation to the Ballot

Throughout the 1950s newspaper record, many Ohio communities reflected the national trend by engaging in the fluoridation debate, including Sandusky and Newark years before Dover. By the midpoint of the decade, according to a Sept. 24, 1954 Daily Reporter article, “a thousand (U.S.) cities now drink water fluoridated artificially, and another 400 have ordered… equipment.”

A 10-year study of two New York towns, Newburgh and Kingston, found fluoridated Newburgh reported 47 percent fewer childhood cavities than its neighbor.

By June 1956, Ley and colleague Dr. C. R. Crawley had gained the support of the Dover Chamber of Commerce with a 43-3 vote in favor of fluoridation. But the debate would drag on, with Ley still stumping in 1957-58 before the St. Joseph’s PTA and others, even as cities including Cincinnati and Columbus had voted to reject fluoridation, in Columbus’ case by a more than 2-1 margin.

Grandpa’s time on city council passed without a positive enactment of any law to move forward with fluoridation. And, at least in my search of the public record, his voice seems to go silent on the topic. A reckoning wouldn’t come until until spring 1970, when the state assembly required four towns in Tuscarawas County to vote yea or nay on fluoridation.

In a March editorial that year, Harry Yockey of the Daily Reporter laid out the sides. In opposition to the measure, groups cited concerns about the damaging effects of sodium fluoride on the kidneys and bones. Opponents offered rewards to anyone who could prove definitively that fluoridation isn’t harmful. The Cincinnati Enquirer shot holes in that argument, saying it would be just as well for the public to offer a reward to prove the harmlessness of peanut butter, or milk, or unfluoridated water. Yet, debate persisted, at a time when a mere 40% of Americans received regular dental care. Cost, of course, was also a concern. Not to mention philosophical arguments against mass medication.

The May 5, 1970 vote was an overwhelming “No” with all four cities, Dover, New Philadelphia, Dennison and Uhrichsville blocking any action by the state government to require fluoridation. Only two communities statewide approved the measure.

Subsequent years saw more twists and turns in the debate — but no definitive resolution. In 1971, the state fluoridation law would be ruled unconstitutional. But efforts to require municipalities to act continued. In 1973, the National Kidney Foundation announced no correlation between fluoridation and kidney ailments. Cincinnati legislators OK’d the measure not long afterward (only to see it overturned in 1975). By 1974, nearly half the U.S. population drank fluoridated water.

Back home, in 1974, New Phila proposed, then scrapped plans for a public forum on the topic. In Dover, it seems nothing ever came of the debate, and even today, the discussion continues.

 

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One thought on “Robert Earl Ley Jr.: 1950s Fluoridation Crusade

  1. Hi Bill — please email me at colt.foutz@gmail.com. Thanks.

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