St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey with Nina Gilden Seavey

St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey with Nina Gilden Seavey

Nina Gilden Seavey discusses how the St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey helped persuade U.S. President Kennedy to sign the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which ended above-ground nuclear weapons testing in the US, UK, and the Soviet Union. In the process, citizen science was born and children sported cool buttons on their lapels.
Shelly Lesher
Shelly Lesher

In this episode of My Nuclear Life, host Shelly Lesher speaks with Nina Gilden Seavey, a documentary film maker and research professor of history and media, and public affairs, in both the Department of History and School of Media & Public Affairs at George Washington University. Her work has won many awards and multiple Emmy nominations, but it was her film about polio in America that won an Emmy. Nina has a podcast called My Fugitive, which is an eight part series about the case of Howard Mechanic, who was accused of burning down an air force building in 1970. Host Shelly talks to Nina about the baby tooth survey, which occurred from 1950 to 1970 and had an impact on ending above ground testing. In this episode, Nina shares the history of the baby tooth survey, its impact and what it was like to participate in the survey at that time.

To begin, Nina shares how the Baby Tooth Survey first got started. In 1958, there were rumblings that open air testing was problematic, so the Baby Tooth Survey was first started to examine whether or not there was nuclear fallout, or radioactive residue, found on the teeth of children. Citizens were worried that the winds and rain spread radioactive particles across the midwest and got into their milk and crops. Nina discusses how scientists came together and there was a Speakers Bureau that would give talks to the community, believing that educated people would understand what they were talking about. Nina’s mom and other women in the community volunteered for the Baby Tooth Survey by organizing and categorizing the teeth. They were told by the nuclear testing authority that whatever was going on was within normal limits, but there wasn’t enough science at that time to even suggest what was in normal limits. Esteemed people like, Edward Teller, were telling the public that the open air testing wasn’t a problem, but Nina shares how she lived in a time where questioning the government was actually unpatriotic or unamerican. In 1959, that was the time of Sputnik, and it started a movement of panic in the United States and there were over 300 open air nuclear tasks. Nina shares that St. Louis at the time was an important metropolitan center and Washington University did not have the Jewish quotas that a lot of the east coast universities had had. Many scientists who had fled the Nazis ended up in St. Louis and these departments had huge names and scientific talent there. Nina also discusses how Linus Pauling gave a talk at Washington Univ and afterward a petition was created that called for the end of open air testing. Scientists from all over the world signed it and ignited the movement against open air testing. Women at the time volunteered at the Center for Nuclear Information, which set out to bring about scientists and people that ran the Baby Tooth Survey and answered questions about the survey.

 Nina continues to share how the idea of gathering teeth came from an article in a science magazine where they talked about the use of teeth for answering questions on exposure. They had tested fetuses from miscarriages, but they did not have a big enough sample. So, they asked for teeth samples and had over 300,000 teeth donated for the study and most of them came from St. Louis. They used 200,000 teeth in the study and the other 100,000 are in a current re-envisioned study. Nina shares how it felt like a patriotic act and like you were doing something important. You received a button for sending in your teeth and you would wear your “I gave my teeth to science” buttons. They would come into the schools and sign you up in the schools. It was a huge part of the community and support back then. Nina tells about a new book coming out called “Left in the Midwest” where she has a chapter on student surveillance in St. Louis and there is also a chapter on the Baby Tooth Survey. The women played a huge role in this survey by volunteering to help. The women were concerned as well because they were also exposing their children to the nuclear exposure. The Baby Tooth Survey was founded by doctors Eric and Louise Reiss, and the results showed that there were elevated levels of radioactivity in the teeth. President Kennedy called Louis Reiss, and he told her his concerns about his own children being exposed to radioactivity. Within a matter of months after that, there was the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Nina continues to share how being a part of the Baby Tooth Survey made you feel like you were a part of something bigger than you in a simpler time where there was no access to information and you believed the government would take care of you.

Links:

Learn more about Nina Gilden Seavey and connect with her here.

Visit the My Nuclear Life website for information, or email us at mynuclearlife@protonlife.com

My Nuclear Life now has a Patreon page, where you can subscribe for bonus content!

Production costs for this episode were provided through National Science Foundation Grant PHY-2011267.