“I Gave My Tooth to Science:” The Voice of Women and the Baby Teeth Collection Program

Ursula Franklin at microscope, UTA 1287-1-5-B2015-0005/001P(03), University of Toronto Archives.

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This is the fourth post in the Perennial Problems series exploring the intersections of environmental history and histories of health


The atomic bomb introduced society to the new and destructive capabilities of nuclear power. The beginning of the Cold War and the growing conflict between the United States and the USSR reminded Canadians that the threat of nuclear war was real. More concerning was the exponential increase in atomic testing. Between 1945 and 1958, the United States exploded 195 nuclear weapons.[1] As Maclean’s published in 1955, “we are playing with a new kind of fire, knowing only that the flame is hot and that we as material are inflammable.”[2]

While the Peace and Ecological Movements in Canada grew out of the fears of the nuclear age, no other group in Canada played such a large in legitimizing these early movements than did the Voice of Women (VOW). Founded in 1960, VOW served as an organization that sought to promote women’s role in the Peace Movement and to draw attention to the growing national and international concerns of conflict and nuclear war.

Although VOW led many protests and campaigns against the increasing threats of atomic warfare and nuclear radiation, one campaign stands out from the rest as both defining their position and initiating larger discussions of the Nuclear Age – the Baby Teeth Collection Program. From 1962-1965, women across Canada participated in VOW’s campaign and collected baby teeth from Canadian children. VOW launched their campaign to provide scientist with samples which they could study for radioactivity and which they could use to map nuclear fallout patterns in Canada.

Globe and Mail, 15 March 1963.

The Baby Teeth Collection Program originated in Montreal and quickly gained interests from the VOW National Committee in Toronto.[3] Led by Dr. Ursula Franklin of the Voice of Women and working with Dr. A. Murray Hunt, professor of dental public health at the University of Toronto, VOW hoped to provide scientists with legitimate human samples they could test for radioactive substances, most importantly, strontium-90.[4] Such projects had been completed in the United States with success. In December of 1958, the Greater St. Louis Citizens’ Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI) organized a baby teeth campaign to determine whether atomic testing exposed children to nuclear fallout.[5] By 1963, the CNI had collected over 130,000 baby teeth.[6]

An example of the “I Gave My Tooth to Science” Button. Similar buttons were used in the Voice of Women Project. 1991.01391.01, National Museum of American History.

VOW and Canadian Scientists were hoping to collect teeth from Vancouver to Halifax in order to get the most meaningful fallout data. [7] VOW asked women who submitted teeth to complete a survey asking where they lived while pregnant and whether the infant was breast-fed or bottle-fed. This information allowed scientists to further pinpoint higher-level areas of radiation in Canada.[8] Like the American Project, children received a button which stated “I Gave My Tooth to Science” – a token of consolation for their missed opportunity with the Tooth Fairy.

VOW’s baby teeth campaign was a large success. In Calgary, VOW notified school boards, dental offices, libraries, and city hall of their campaign. Their efforts garnered 2,200 teeth by the end of September 1963. In Toronto, VOW handed out 40,000 baby tooth survey forms to children.[9] Members set up a booth at the 1963 Canadian National Exhibition, complete with a three-foot barrel to collect teeth.[10] In Regina, VOW worked with dentists and the public school board to collect 500 teeth between Regina and Moose Jaw.[11] By the end of the campaign, VOW had collected over 40,000 teeth, one decaying buffalo tooth, and a broken boar’s tusk.[12]

Dr. Hunt reported his findings in March 1966. Prepared for the National Research Council, Hunt reported that while the teeth had increased levels of stontium-90, such amounts were of minimal threat to Canadians. The report stated that teeth formed in 1958 contained no more than 3 picocuries of stontium-90 per gram of calcium, a number below the United Nations’ Committee on Radiation’s limits of 68 picocuries per gram. While VOW accepted the findings, they recommended a second study be completed to extend the NRC’s available data on radioactive fallout in Canada – more importantly because the US had further increased atomic testing since the project began.[13]

VOW’s project had also compiled enough teeth from across the country to find correlations from atomic fallout. VOW’s tooth survey found that radiation levels varied across the provinces. The highest radiation levels were found in Calgary while the lowest levels were found in Hamilton. VOW had also found higher levels of radiation in the Maritimes.[14] Moreover, results from Dr. Hunt’s analysis suggested that breast-fed children had lower levels of radiation than bottle-fed children. VOW donated the samples to the Chalk River Nuclear Facility in hopes that scientists with Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) could do further testing.[15]

Globe and Mail, 18 March 1966.

While the baby teeth campaign was an impressive feat of organization and work, it should be recognized for its larger importance to the peace and ecological movements of the 1960s. VOW’s position on nuclear war and its interest and involvement in understanding the scientific and health influences of nuclear energy on humans and the environment separated them from other groups emerging from the Cold War Peace Movement. Whereas civil disobedience and tactics of “guerilla theater” were a mainstay for the larger peace and ecological movements of the Sixties, the Voice of Women used scientific expertise to challenge science itself.

VOW’s campaign succeeded in challenging the hegemonic policies of the nuclear age with scientific data and expertise. VOW’s work with scientists legitimized women’s role within larger political and ecological discussions and was influential in promoting the importance of scientific expertise and public awareness. The Voice of Women’s use of scientific technique was essential to their success and was influential in shaping the later practices of the ecological movement in the 1970s.


Notes

[1] Department of Energy, United States Nuclear Tests July 1945 through September 1992 (Nevada: Department of Energy, December 2000), xi.
[2] “A Canadian Scientists Asks Have We Gone Too Far with Atom Tests,” Maclean’s, 9 July 1955.
[3] LAC, Voice of Women Fonds, MG 28 I218, Box 7, Folder 19, VOW National Newsletter 28 (July 1963): 7.
[4] Nicole Marion, “Canada’s Disarmers: The Complicated Struggle Against Nuclear Weapons, 1959-1963,” PhD Dissertation, Carleton University (Ottawa, 2017), 149.
[5] Michael Egan, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 66.
[6] Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2010), 24-26.
[7] LAC, Voice of Women Fonds, MG 28 I218, Box 7, Folder 19, VOW National Newsletter 29/30 (November 1963): 19.
[8] “New Program Launched: Teeth Collecting for Peace,” Globe and Mail, 5 March 1963.
[9] Nicole Marion, “Canada’s Disarmers,” 21
[10] “Molars Missing: Good Fairies Bite Science On Teeth,” Globe and Mail, 31 August 1963.
[11] LAC, Voice of Women Fonds, MG 28 I218, Box 7, Folder 19, VOW National Newsletter 2, 3 (Spring 1964): 10.
[12] “VOW Report: 12,000 Teeth Tested,” Globe and Mail, 1 June 1964. See also Nicole Marion, “Canada’s Disarmers,” 147.
[13] A picocurie a one trillionth of a curie, a curie being a unit of measurement of the radioactivity of a gram of radium. See “Teeth calm strontium fears,” Globe and Mail, 18 March 1966.
[14] See Marion, “Canada’s Disarmers,” 147-148. See also “1,200 Baby Teeth Collected for VOW,” Globe and Mail, 12 September 1963.
[15] Freeman, Sara Jane and Ursula Franklin, Ursula Franklin Speaks: Thoughts and Afterthoughts (Montreal-Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 135-136.

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Brandon Cordeiro

Brandon Cordeiro is a PhD Candidate at McMaster University and is currently researching the social, economic, and environmental influences of nuclear power on shaping modern Canada.

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