Seattle voters defeat fluoridation proposal and oust longtime incumbent Mayor William Devin on March 11, 1952.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 2/26/2014
  • Essay 4049

On March 11, 1952, Seattle voters defeat a hotly contested proposal to add fluoride to the city's drinking water by a surprisingly overwhelming margin, and oust Mayor William Devin (1898-1982), who has served since 1942, in favor of challenger Allan Pomeroy (ca. 1907-1966), who lost to Devin four years earlier. Voters in Seattle and other communities approve school-funding measures, but a Seattle library-bond measure fails to win approval. Seattle voters will defeat fluoridation again in 1963, but approve it in 1968.

Pomeroy versus Devin, Round Two 

William Devin (1898-1982), a lawyer and former police court judge, was first elected Mayor of Seattle in 1942. Under Seattle's Freeholders Charter of 1890, then in effect, mayoral terms were two years long, and Devin was re-elected in 1944. He won again in 1946, when he defeated a challenge from Victor A. Meyers (1897-1991), the flamboyant former bandleader then serving his fourth (of five) terms as Washington's lieutenant governor. In that same election, city voters approved a new charter, which changed the mayor's term to four years, effective with the 1948 election. In the 1948 vote, Mayor Devin was challenged by Assistant United States Attorney Allan Pomeroy, but narrowly prevailed, winning by a slim margin of less than 2,500 votes.

Four years later, Pomeroy challenged Devin again. According to The Seattle Times, "Pomeroy's main themes during the campaign were that he would put new vigor into community efforts to attract new business and that he would replace [police chief George D.] Eastman" ("Shake-up ...," p. 8). This time Pomeroy won, in part, the Times suggested, because voters "believed that ten years was long enough for any mayor to serve" ("Shake-up ...," p. 8). With voter turnout, boosted by the highly contentious fluoridation ballot measure, setting a new record, both men received substantially higher totals (79,706 for Pomeroy, 76,922 for Devin) than they had four years earlier, but Pomeroy's winning margin was only slightly greater than that by which he had lost the previous race. Chief Eastman did not wait for Pomeroy to make good on his campaign promise; the chief resigned as soon as the results were announced.

Unlike the incumbent mayor, all three Seattle city councilmembers up for re-election retained their seats. Voters in Seattle, and numerous other communities including Bothell, Highline, Kent, Shoreline, Skykomish, and Snoqualmie Valley, approved a wide array of school-funding measures; Seattle voters also supported a library bond measure, but that failed to reach the 60 percent approval required for passage. But the ballot measure that garnered by far the most attention was the proposal to fluoridate Seattle's water supply, which "all but overshadowed interest in the mayoralty race" ("Fluoridation Defeated ...").

Beginnings of Fluoridation 

Fluorides (compounds containing the element fluorine) occur naturally in soil and water, generally in very small quantities. Authorities first began adding the chemical to drinking water supplies, as a means of combating tooth decay, in 1945, when Grand Rapids, Michigan, became the first city to fluoridate its water, followed quickly by communities in New York, Illinois, and Ontario, Canada. Deliberately adding a chemical known to be toxic in large quantities to drinking water may have seemed surprising, but since the early twentieth century some dentists had been reporting that patients in areas with higher natural levels of fluoride in drinking water had less tooth decay. Dentists had actually noticed the harmful effects of high natural levels of fluoride first: many patients in those areas had significantly stained and even pitted teeth, a problem that was named fluorosis.

But when dentists saw that patients with fluorosis also seemed to have fewer cavities, some began proposing adding fluoride, in a concentration of around 1 to 1.2 parts per million (ppm), to drinking water where it did not naturally occur at that level. Fluoridation proponents asserted that that level would effectively reduce decay while causing only mild fluorosis and, they argued, no other problems. Preliminary studies of the first communities to fluoridate announced such impressive reductions in decay rates that proponents did not wait for the studies to conclude.

By the early 1950s, the U.S. Public Health Service, the American Dental Association, state and local health authorities, and others were actively promoting fluoridation across the country. Almost everywhere, their efforts stirred bitter controversy. Fluoridation opponents, including many in medical professions, warned that the health risks had not been adequately studied, asserted that there were better methods of providing fluoride to those who wanted it, and objected to having the chemical forced on those who did not.

Urging the Council 

The nationwide controversy came to Seattle in 1951. That January, Dr. Emil Palmquist, director of the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health, urged that Seattle's water supply be treated with fluorine "at the earliest possible moment" as a means of preventing tooth decay, particularly in children ("Fluorine Urged ..."). The recommendation, which Palmquist said was supported by the Seattle District Dental Society and the King County Medical Society, followed a study of Seattle schoolchildren that reported "Seattle's children have a dental attack rate about 50 percent higher than the national average ("Fluorine Urged ..."). The study had been conducted by the dental society, Seattle Public Schools, and the Seattle Council of Parent-Teacher Associations (PTA), and the local PTA became one of the leading advocates of fluoridating Seattle's water. 

Palmquist, the PTA, and other proponents took their request to the Seattle City Council because the city owned and operated the water system that supplied Seattle (and many surrounding communities, although only Seattle elected officials and voters had authority to determine water-department policy). The council appeared favorable to the idea and following a public hearing unanimously called for preparation of ordinances authorizing fluoridation and including the cost in water bills. At an April conference on fluoridation at the University of Washington, national advocates praised the council's apparent decision to begin fluoridation. Dr. Frederick S. McKay, a Colorado Springs dentist who nearly half a century before in 1908 had been one of the first to link fluoride to reduced decay, called fluoridation "mass control of dental caries" and said "Seattle has taken a forward step in deciding to fluoridate its water supply" ("Fluoridation Program ..."). 

But the decision had not actually been made. Local opposition grew, and the ordinances that had been prepared were never introduced. In early battles over fluoridation nationwide, opponents were often identified with the political far right, with some calling the concept a communist plot. But in Seattle in 1951, while some opponents did denounce fluoridation as "socialized medicine" ("Fluoridation Is Unproved ..."), opposition, or at least reluctance to proceed, spread across the political spectrum and included not just many doctors and dentists, but even the head of the Seattle Water Department. 

Letting the Voters Decide 

In the summer of 1951, the Municipal League, which originated in the Progressive Movement and was a well-respected advocate of government reform, urged the city council to put the issue of fluoridation on the ballot for voters to decide, rather than making the decision itself. After the council did so, the league, which generally took a stand on city ballot measures, summarized the arguments on both sides but decided not to make any recommendation on fluoridation. 

In January 1951, before the initial council hearing, Water Superintendent Roy W. Morse had said the department was taking a "'strictly neutral' attitude in the matter" ("Treatment of Water ..."), but by the time the council decided in November to put the issue on the March 1952 ballot, Morse was "definitely cool toward fluoridation" ("City Council Unanimous ..."). He called for additional scientific study before proceeding, noting that while studies showed fluoridation reduced dental decay "there appears to be less reliable knowledge concerning the ultimate systemic effects of fluorine" ("Council Favors ..."). In contrast Dr. Sanford Lehman, who had succeeded Palmquist as director of the health department (which he would continue to head through the successful 1968 push for fluoridation), told the council that he fully supported his predecessor's fluoridation recommendation as a "great benefit to children" ("Council Favors ...").  

Some of Morse's coolness toward fluoridation may have come from the cost of the program, which he estimated as $135,000 per year, and which would come out of the water-department budget. The fact that not only fluoride, but the costs of adding the chemical to the water, would be forced on all water users was one of opponents' primary objections. Critics suggested that since fluoridation was aimed at childhood tooth decay and didn't benefit adults, the cost should be covered by the health department or school district rather than ratepayers. 

"A Red-hot Campaign" 

The referendum placed before voters on the March 11 ballot provided for fluoridating Seattle's water at a level between 0.7 and 1.5 ppm. The strong feelings on both sides produced what The Seattle Times called "a red-hot campaign" ("Fluoridation Defeated ..."). Supporters argued that "persons born and reared in Seattle have an enormous amount of dental decay" and said the measure would "cut[] that decay in half" ("Water-Fluoridation Plan ..."). They pointed out that nearly 300 American cities were already fluoridating. Proponents cited statements from national medical and dental groups that fluoridation at the levels proposed "will have no harmful effect on any part of the body," and touted the support of the local dental and medical societies and several hundred individual doctors and dentists ("Water-Fluoridation Plan ...").

However, physicians and dentists were also prominent in the ranks of opponents. Dr. F. B. Exner, a Seattle radiologist and former president of the Anti-Tuberculosis League of King County, was one of the most vocal opponents, calling fluoridation "unproved medically" and suggesting that instead of adding them to drinking water "that fluorides be handled the same as any other drug," with doctors who believed in their value recommending them to patients ("Fluoridation Is Unproved ..."). Dr. Ralph M. Huber, a retired Seattle dentist, called the length of fluoride studies to date "ridiculously short" and urged local authorities to wait 10 or 15 years and observe the results of fluoridation elsewhere before implementing the practice ("Further Study ..."). In the meantime, Huber called on the PTA and others to work to remove products containing sugar from schools, noting that candy, soft drinks and the like were also implicated in high decay rates. In addition to some dentists and doctors, opponents included "Christian Scientists, chiropractors and naturopaths, ... [and] an association of health-food-store operators and their clients ..." ("Fluoridation Defeated ..."). 

None of the opponents had significant political experience and they spent a total of only $1,300 on the campaign. With most of the medical and political establishment supporting fluoridation, observers expected the vote to be close. It wasn't. The referendum was overwhelmingly defeated by a nearly two-to-one margin, with 44,811 votes in favor and 86,230 opposed reported the next day. 

Eleven years later in 1963, a second attempt at fluoridation also lost, by a lesser but still substantial margin. Supporters tried once more in 1968, and this time they prevailed by a margin of 57 to 43 percent. The Seattle Water Department, which under superintendent Kenneth Lowthian supported the measure, began fluoridating the supply in January 1970 at a level of 1 ppm. As of 2014, Seattle Public Utilities (successor to the water department) continued water fluoridation, at a level of 0.8 ppm following issuance in 2011 of draft federal recommendations to reduce levels.

Sources: "Mayors of the City of Seattle," Seattle City Clerk website accessed February 11, 2014 (; Richard C. Berner, Seattle in the 20th Century, v. 3, Seattle Transformed: World War II to Cold War (Seattle: Charles Press, 1999), 11-12, 15, 109, 114, 213-14; Ross Cunningham, "Plugging by Finger Stirs Up Port Interest," The Seattle Times, February 8, 1948, p. 13; Cunningham, "Muny League Issues Report on Candidates," Ibid., February 15, 1948, p. 17; "Treatment of Water to Be Discussed," Ibid., January 24, 1951, p. 19; John Bigelow, "Fluoridation Program Gets Experts' Praise," Ibid., April 27, 1951, p. 16; E. B. Fussell, "Water Revenues Can't Meet Added Expenses," Ibid., May 18, 1951, p. 5; "City Ballot Proposed on Fluoridation," Ibid., August 22, 1951, p. 22; "Fluoridation Waits," Ibid., October 14, 1951, p. 17; "Council Favors Fluoridation of City Water," Ibid., November 20, 1951, p. 3; "City Council Unanimous for Fluoridation," Ibid., November 27, 1951, p. 11; "Municipal League's Fluoridation Summary Makes No Recommendation," Ibid., February 21, 1952, p. 4; "Fluoridation Is Unproved, Says Doctor," Ibid., February 28, 1952, p. 17; "Medical Society Board Ok'd Fluoridation," Ibid., March 9, 1952, p. 15; "Further Study of Fluoridation Tests Advised," Ibid.; "Water-Fluoridation Plan Highlight of Tuesday Vote," Ibid., p. 17; Cunningham, "Shake-up in City Officials to Follow Pomeroy Win," Ibid., March 12, 1952, pp. 1, 8; "Fluoridation Defeated by Heavy Margin," Ibid., p. 8; "Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Fluoridation of Drinking Water to Prevent Dental Caries," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website accessed May 4, 2012 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle water department begins fluoridation of water supply on January 12, 1970." (by Heather Trescases and Kit Oldham), (accessed February 16, 2014).
Note: This essay replaces two previous essays on aspects of this election.

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