“Bludgeoned into Accepting What is Good for Us”: Fear, Risk, Fluoridation and the Home in Post-War Britain

Glen O’Hara
(Oxford Brookes University)

As rationing came to an end in the 1950s, and tooth decay from sugary drinks and sweets became a topic of great concern for doctors and dentists, UK policymakers looked to US experiments with fluoridising the water supply for a glimpse of a scientific future that would help them escape from dilemmas of diet and lifestyle. But they came up against a well-organised, determined and ideologically-committed group of anti-fluoridisers, gathered under the banner of the National Pure Water Association, who perceived ‘compulsory medication’ to amount to tyranny, an unaccaptable intrusion of state government into the home, and enforced intervention in individual Britons’ bodies akin to Nazi medical experimentation. The anti-fluoridation campaign cut across political parties and traditional conceptions of ‘left’ and ‘right’, finding adherents across the UK, and all in all main ideological groupings. What such groups opposed was what they perceived to be the unacceptable risk with their children, imposed on them by the same ‘experts’ who caused the thalidomide tragedy in the late 1950s. Once the Conservatives had declined to legislate in the early 1960s, finding the whole issue too controversial for central direction, anti-fluoridation campaigners kept up the pressure in the courts, and on local authorities, until they managed to thwart the idea of near-universal fluoridation itself. Only about a fifth of the UK’s water was to be fluoridated by the end of the century – a controversy that continues in the early twenty-first century, at the borders of acceptable state intervention in the health choices of each individual. This paper will explore the political, ideological, gender and local contours of the anti-fluoride agitation as a way of exploring ‘popular knowledge’ about health and medicine, as well as anti-statism and individualism, in post-war Britain.

Wednesday, 3rd February 2016, 12.45 pm – 2.00 pm
Venue: Jerry Morris A, Tavistock Place

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