Lawrence, Massachusetts — 1874-1959
Practitioner, Researcher, Educator and Father of Communal Fluoridation
Dr. Lawrence S. McKay was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts on April 13, 1874. He was educated in the public schools in Milford and Boston, Massachusetts.
At an early age he wanted to become a musician, but his health problems did not permit that to happen. As a young man he worked in his father’s dry goods store in Milford and played with local bands. When his health failed due to what was thought to be tuberculosis, he moved to Colorado in 1894. After numerous odd jobs he became discouraged and returned to Massachusetts. He worked as a street car conductor and developed a lifelong love for trains and locomotives.
He was encouraged by his brother-in-law, a dentist, to study dentistry. In 1897 he entered Boston Dental College which later became Dental School of Tufts University. He transferred to the University of Pennsylvania to start his Junior year and graduated in June, 1900. History tells us that he was so exhausted from working odd jobs, playing in bands and working as a conductor and his dental studies that he nearly collapsed at his graduation. He spent the summer recuperating at his sister’s home and later went to Colorado Springs for health reasons.
He arrived in Colorado Springs in 1901 and worked as a dental associate for $75.00/ month. He noticed patients with the presence of multiple teeth with white or brown spots and in severe cases the enamel was pitted. He became disturbed that many of his fellow practitioners were apathetic about identifying the cause and solution to this cosmetic problem.
By 1905 Dr. McKay had become interested in orthodontics and moved to St. Louis to begin his orthodontic training. While in St. Louis he noticed the brown stain was prevalent in that region, also. He continued his research in the area but was unable to find an answer.
In 1908 he returned to Colorado Springs due to health reasons and practiced orthodontics while continuing to investigate of the “Colorado Brown Stain”.
In May, 1908 he and other members of the El Paso County Odontological Society presented a patient at the Colorado Dental Association meeting to illustrate and promote interest in the condition. To his dismay little interest was manifested by those at the meeting.
In December, 1908 a committee consisting of Drs. McKay, Fleming and Burton was formed by the El Paso County Odonological Society to examine the teeth of the public school children in the Colorado Springs area for evidence of the “Brown Stain”. On January 8, 1909 the School Board granted permission to examine the children and the dental society allocated $21.00 to cover the cost of the exams. During the spring of 1909 they examined 2945 children and were astounded to find that 87.5 percent were afflicted with some degree of stain or mottling, and those afflicted were native to the Pikes Peak region.
There were many theories for the cause of the stain. Some felt it was limited to the poor; others felt it was due to eating too much pork or drinking milk from local cows; others attributed it to radium and still others thought it was due to a calcium deficiency in the local drinking water.
In 1908 Dr. McKay corresponded with Dr. G.V. Black, Dean of Northwestern University Dental School in Chicago about the unique Colorado Brown Stain. Dr. Black became interested and began to study the problem. In 1909 Dr. Black came to Colorado Springs to see the stained enamel first hand. This led to many years of research and study between the two men and culminated in the publication of their early report in Dental Cosmos in 1916.
Funding was minimal and Dr. McKay primarily used his own funds to support his research. In 1910 he was granted $300.00 from the City of Colorado Springs. The next year, while serving as president of the Colorado Dental Association, he received $150.00 to assist with his study. He applied for and received the first research grant for $800.00 from the National Dental Association to continue his research.
By 1915 it was agreed that something in the water was causing the brown stain. But test after test failed to identify the critical substance.
The first answer came from research done by Dr. H. V. Churchill, chief chemist for the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA). Dr. Churchill had read Dr. McKay’s report and ordered a specific test to identify trace elements. His studies revealed an unusually high percentage of fluoride in the water where mottled enamel occurred.
By 1917 Dr. McKay had become interested in periodontics and moved to New York to further his education. He practiced his new specialty in New York City. All the while his interest in the Colorado Brown Stain never faltered.
By 1931 Dr. McKay had spent over a quarter of a century establishing that mottled enamel of the teeth was caused by an excess of natural fluoride salts in the water supplies.
Dr. McKay often noted that people with the mottled enamel appeared to have less decay than others, but his interest was limited to identifying what was causing the Brown Stain.
During the late 1930’s extensive studies of many thousands of children in districts where the domestic water supply contained fluorine, definitely established that there is an inverse relationship between the use of fluoridated water and a low decay rate.
Later studies showed conclusively that decay rates increased in communities where water supplies were changed to non-fluoridated water. Finally, after many years of research and hundreds of studies it was determined that one part fluoride per million parts water effectively reduced tooth decay up to 65 per cent.
Dr. McKay’s early observations of mottled enamel and his determination to ascertain its cause led to the discovery of benefits of fluoridation of drinking water. Today, over 300 million people enjoy the benefits of fluoridated water.
In 1940 he decided to return to Colorado Springs to continue his research while in retirement, but he soon found himself practicing dentistry. Dr. Frederick S. McKay died on August 21, 1959 at the age of 85.
During Dr. McKay’s life he published over 50 articles on his fluoride research, lectured extensively and contributed to textbooks on the subject.
The great scientific and humanitarian value of his services, however, brought him not only numerous honorary memberships in dental and other professional organizations, but also many special awards and honorary degrees.
Dr. McKay was awarded Honorary Doctorate of Science degrees from the University of Colorado, Colorado College, Case Western Reserve University and the University of Pennsylvania.
He was a very dedicated individual who was determined to identify the cause of the discoloration of teeth and spent a lifetime using his personal funds to pursue his goal.
The fluoridation of drinking water is one of the greatest contributions the dental profession has made to society. The American Dental Association in 1962 stated: “The fluoridation of public water supplies is a safe, economical, and effective measure to prevent dental caries. It has received the unqualified approval of every major health organization in the United States and of many other countries.”
All of these things occurred because of one man’s interest, desire and determination. The results reaffirm the old adage that one person can make a difference!
For his many contributions to improving the dental health of all mankind the Pierre Fauchard Academy has elected Dr. Frederick S. McKay to the International Hall of Fame of Dentistry.