By: Dr. Jerry Bergman,
I have long been interested in health quacks and cure-alls. Many otherwise intelligent people accept clearly fallacious fads. Part of the reason may be sick people naturally seek a cure, and hope clouds reason. One of the most extreme examples was the almost half-century crusade against the use of aluminum cookware. The movement claimed that aluminum cookware caused serious diseases including cancer.
The primary evidence against aluminum was numerous case histories that claimed those who used aluminum pots and pans soon thereafter developed various maladies. When their cookware was switched to enamel, the victim’s health rapidly improved. In a typical case, an article titled “Two More Aluminum Sacrifices” quoted a 1930s Cleveland Plain Dealer story about two young children who died from a “mysterious poisoning.” The illnesses occurred shortly after they consume
d a meal boiled in an aluminum kettle.
The editor concluded that the aluminum cookery caused the poisoning, asking “how many fathers and mothers will be made ill; how many babies slain before the government prevents this unnecessary slaughter by banning aluminum cooking utensils.”
No mention was made about an investigation into the deaths. If the parents ate the same food, did they get sick? The actual cause could be due to anything from botulism to rancid food—the family was poor, and possibly the food was contaminated.
Aluminum, although the third most common element in the Earth’s crust, was difficult to purify until Oberlin College student Charles M. Hall developed an electrolytic process in 1886 that lowered the cost enormously. The price of aluminum plummeted from 90 dollars per pound to as low as 27 cents per pound in the 1920s. Soon, hundreds of aluminum products became common. Aluminum was an ideal metal for many uses, including cookware, because it is relatively lightweight, able to be shaped easily, and is an excellent heat conductor.
A case Betts used was related by a reader, a Mr. Hanson, who claimed that he used aluminum cookware for years, and suffered from “bilious attacks” and would “almost go blind” from an “ice-like film.” After he replaced all of his aluminum cooking pots, the blindness soon disappeared, and he claims he has felt great ever since.
The writings of Toledo dentist Charles T. Betts (1879-1959) were a primary basis of the over three-decade-long campaign against aluminum. He self-published his many books on the topic, some of which I was able to purchase on the internet. Betts’s publications included “Aspirin Poisoning,” “Early Grave Via the Modern Kitchen?,” and “Death in the Pot.” He received thousands of supportive letters from all over the world about his work.
Betts also believed that persons under the age of 15 should not brush their teeth unless they “are ill or in need of medical attention.” He argued that, since cats and dogs do not brush after each meal, neither should humans because, he claimed, “brushing causes the diseases of the mouth, now common to our children. After going to a [school] play we do not wash out our eyes. Thus, after eating a meal, we do not need to brush our teeth.”
Betts, called the North American guru of the anti-aluminum movement, never went to dental school. Instead, he apprenticed with a dentist, as was common then, and was licensed to practice dentistry in Ohio. Dr. Betts’s daughter, Bonnie Staffel, mentioned to me that during the Great Depression he provided dental work at no cost or for trade. His daughter stressed her father’s ideas must be understood as part of the culture in which he wrote and lived, including, especially, the Depression (1929-1939).
The anti-aluminum movement was part of the wider popular culture trend against orthodox medicine that stressed using “natural foods” to treat illness and eschewed what they regarded as “unnatural remedies” such as drugs. In the early 1920s, allopathic medicine was widely regarded as a lowly trade in which cures were rare and scientific understanding of disease was even rarer.
Dr. Morris Fishbein, a popular author and a former head of the American Medical Association, evaluated Dr. Betts’s claims. His assessment is as accurate today as it was in 1927. In his words, research has shown “the cooking even of acid fruits and vegetables for long periods of time resulted only in the slightest traces of aluminum in the juice. The theory of the Toledo dentist is pernicious in that it is used to disseminate false advice concerning cancer.”
All of us have opinions that lie outside of our area of expertise. Even informed intelligent people sometimes pontificate on areas they know very little about. The history of the opposition to aluminum cookware eloquently demonstrates much about the need to be constrained by the limits of one’s knowledge. It also helps to listen to others opinions and read both sides.
Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,800 publications in 12 languages and 60 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries.