Faculty & Alumni
St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey, 1959-1970
The Baby Tooth Survey was initiated in December 1958 as one of the activities of the Greater St. Louis Citizen’s Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI). The Committee was organized in April 1958 by a group of scientists and public-minded citizens who felt that the community should be given accurate information on the known effects of nuclear energy and radiation. Founding members included Mrs. Edna Gellhorn, a tireless and effective worker for civic causes in the city of St. Louis, the state of Missouri, and the nation for sixty years; Barry Commoner, professor of Plant Physiology at Washington University; John M. Fowler, a Washington University physicist; the Reverend Ralph C. Abele, head of the Metropolitan Church Federation; and Alfred S. Schwartz, assistant professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine.
Though many members of the group were vocally against nuclear testing, CNI never took an official position for or against the testing of nuclear weapons. Scientific facts were assembled, studied by the Committee and its Scientific Advisory Group, and then made available to the public through regular bulletins, newsletters, and a speaker’s bureau.
The initial impetus for the Baby Tooth Survey came from an article in the British scientific journal Nature by Dr. Herman M. Kalckar, a Johns Hopkins University biochemist (and former research fellow in the laboratory of Carl and Gerty Cori at the Washington University School of Medicine from 1940 to 1943). Kalckar suggested that primary teeth, as they were extracted or shed, might provide valuable information as to the absorption of radioactive elements by the body. He proposed an International Milk Teeth Radiation Census, which would “contribute important information concerning the amount and kind of radiation received by the most sensitive section of any population, namely, the children.”
When the Baby Tooth Survey was first considered by the CNI, the program was presented to the deans and other representatives of St. Louis and Washington University Schools of Dentistry, the St. Louis Dental Society and leaders in the local dental community. They approved the project and assured support and cooperation by forming with representatives of CNI the Scientific Advisory Group* of the Baby Tooth Survey. The Washington University School of Dentistry further aligned itself with the study by establishing a research team which immediately applied for a grant from the National Institute of Dental Research of the U. S. Public Health Service. An initial five-year grant for $197,454 was approved and a laboratory to conduct the strontium-90 studies was established.
The Greater St. Louis Citizen’s Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI) initiated and conducted the collection of teeth in the St. Louis area, assisted by area dentists who collected and submitted teeth. A large and active group of CNI volunteers coordinated the distribution of tooth collection forms to all St. Louis City and County schools, private and parochial schools, libraries and even drugstores throughout the area. Assistance came from church and social organizations and Boy Scout, Girl Scout, YMCA and YWCA groups. Under the direction of Dr. Louise Z. Reiss, the project collected and catalogued almost 15,000 baby teeth in its first year. By the end of Baby Tooth Survey in 1970, almost 300,000 teeth had been collected and analyzed. Other Baby Tooth Surveys were formed, patterned after the St. Louis program, including ones in New York, the five Gulf Coast states, Canada, and Germany.
Washington University School of Dentistry professors Harold L. Rosenthal, John T. Bird, and John E. Gilster conducted the scientific study of the baby teeth. They found that the radioactive strontium-90 levels in the baby teeth of children born from 1945 to 1965 had risen 100-fold and that the level of strontium-90 rose and fell in correlation with atomic bomb tests. Early results from the Baby Tooth Survey, and a U. S. Public Health Service study that showed an alarming rise in the percentage of underweight live births and of childhood cancer, helped persuade President John F. Kennedy to negotiate a treaty with the Soviet Union to end above-ground testing of atomic bombs in 1963.
* The Scientific Advisory Group consisted of: Dr. John T. Bird, Jr., associate professor of Dental Medicine and assistant dean, Washington University of Dentistry; Dr. Donald Flieder, associate professor of Dental Pathology, St. Louis University School of Dentistry; Dr. Stephen P. Forrest, dean, St. Louis University School of Dentistry; Dr. Leroy S. Boling, dean, Washington University School of Dentistry; Dr. Barry Commoner, professor of Plant Physiology, Washington University; Dr. John E. Gilster, associate professor of Dental Pediatrics, Washington University School of Dentistry; Dr, Eric Reiss, assistant professor of Medicine and Preventive Medicine, Washington University School of Medicine; Dr. Harold Rosenthal, assistant professor of Biochemistry, Washington University School of Medicine and School of Dentistry; Dr. Alfred S. Schwartz, assistant professor of Clinical Pediatrics, Washington University School of Medicine; Dr. E. S. Khalifah, editor of the Journal of the Missouri State Dental Association; Dr. Louise Reiss, internists and director of the Baby Tooth Survey; and Dr. Philip Vierheller, president of the St. Louis Dental Society.
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