Heard the one about the scientist who was doing excellent research but was sacked by her Institute because her discoveries shattered the prevailing “scientific orthodoxies?”
Yes, it is a common claim. Often made by activists promoting conspiracy theories. But it is an easy one to make and it is always worth checking the facts in such cases.
Of course, the anti-fluoridation movement is no exception – they claim that a number of “anti-fluoridation scientists” have been sacked for their work. Here I will just look at one of these stories – that of Dr Phyllis Mullenix.
The Mullenix story
A few facts.
Phyllis Mullenix was working for the Forsyth Research Institute in Boston. In her time there, she researched several possible neurotoxicants but made only one study on fluoride which was published in 1995. The paper is:
Mullenix, Phyllis J., Debenstein. Pamela K., Schunior, A., & Kernan, W. J. (1995). Neurotoxicity of sodium fluoride in rats. Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 17(2), 169–177.
This paper has become central to claims made by anti-fluoride campaigners that community water fluoridation lowers IQ in children.
However, this paper is not relevant to community water fluoridation because of the very high concentrations of fluoride used (0, 75, 100, 125 and 175 mg/L in drinking water fed the rats). That such levels are unrealistic was shown by her own report that “the 175 ppm level . . . resulted in dehydration and the death of 10 of the exposed animals within 10 days.” Half of the 21 animals exposed died within 10 days!
For comparison, the recommended concentrations for community water fluoridation are usually less than 1 mg/L. But it is interesting that when anti-fluoride campaigners tell Mullenix’s story they rarely mention the concentration she used.
Mullenix did lose her job at Forsyth. A unanimous meeting of senior staff members on April 19, 1994, recommended she not be reappointed to her position. She was a staff associate and employment was usually guaranteed for 12 months at a time. Renewals would have depended on several factors, including the level of funding the employee was able to attract from research grants. Mullenix was informed by letter on May 31, 1994, that the Board of Trustees had approved the recommendation from senior staff members that her appointment would not be renewed.
So, she lost her job – but technically was not sacked – just not reappointed.
Why was her employment not renewed?
Depends if you believe there was a conspiracy against fluoride research.
Here are some of the conspiracy stories that are floated:
Chris Bryson says in his book The Fluoride Deception:
“PHYLLIS J. MULLENIX. A leading neurotoxicologist hired by the Forsyth Dental Center in Boston to investigate the toxicity of materials used in dentistry. In 1994 after her research indicated that fluoride was neurotoxic, she was fired.”
This claim has been repeatedly presented in articles and submissions by anti-fluoride activists. For example:
“She went from being a leading neurotoxicologist at a Harvard affiliated research institute to an industry pariah. This assignment and her findings ruined her career as a grant-funded research scientist.”
“Within days of learning that her study was accepted for publication, Dr [Phyllis] Mullenix was fired from the Forsyth Dental Center. She has received no grants since that time to continue her research.”
“Dr Phyllis Mullenix was sacked from the Forsyth Dental Center, where she was head of the toxicology department, for publishing research in Neurotoxicology and Teratology showing that fluoride can adversely affect brain function. She had been warned: “If you publish this information, we won’t get any more grants from NIDR” (from which the institute got most of its money).“
And I could go on. And on. There is no shortage of such claims promoted as arguments against community water fluoridation.
But here are some facts.
I have gone to the legal document presented to the US District Court, D, Massachusett on November 13, 1996. These relate to a case brought by Mullenix against Forsyth claiming discrimination and retaliation for her legal actions.
“alleges that Forsyth discriminated against Dr. Mullenix on the basis of her sex, denied her equal pay and one or more promotions and retaliated against her for seeking legal redress during her employment at Forsyth as a Staff Associate from 1982 to 1994.”
The document, Mullenix v. Forsyth Dental Infirmary for Children, is quite long and full of legalese which I would never pretend to understand. But it certainly makes clear that the complaint by Mullenix and the response by Forsyth have nothing to do with fluoride or fluoridation.
Fluoride is mention only a few times:
“Dr. Mullenix asseverates that no one at Forsyth ever questioned the quality of her work or that her fluoride research did not lie within Forsyth’s mission. (Docket Entry # 102, Mullenix Affidavit).”
“Dr. Mullenix contends that Dr. Taubman “called Dr. Mullenix `hysterical’ because he disagreed with her research.” (Docket Entry # 102, p. 18). Dr. Mullenix recites Dr. Taubman’s alleged statement while explaining what she said to Dr. Hay during a conversation a few days after giving a seminar on fluoride research. According to Dr. Mullenix, Dr. Hay mentioned that “Marty Taubman in particular was very irate about the data that was presented …” and that “Marty Taubman had indicated that I was hysterical in my reporting.” (Docket Entry # 98, Mullenix Deposition).”
It appears Mullenix made the complaint about use of the word “hysterical” together with apparently sexist remarks made by colleagues (relating to clothing and the employment rights of women who had husbands) as evidence of a hostile and sexist work environment.
This document outlines the various complaints made by Mullenix – and clearly, they did not relate to fluoride or, directly, to her findings about fluoride. In fact, it says:
“Dr. Mullenix asserts that the only reason other than gender which explains Forsyth’s actions is that it acted in retaliation for Dr. Mullenix’ seeking legal redress.”
Mullenix took her initial legal action because she had been denied a promotion and subsequently claimed Forsyth had retaliated against her because of her initial threat of legal action if her promotion was declined (it was and she did take legal action) and then the actual legal action.
I have focused on Mullenix’s version here because they do make clear that her fluoride research and findings were not involved in any retaliation by Forsyth. The institute’s version, of course, seeks to justify their actions. While there is some reference to her research interest not coinciding strongly with the Institute’s interests, their evidence relates almost completely to salaries for male and female staff members, the responsibilities of the staff associate position that Mullenix occupied, and the extent of funding Mullenix was able to attract.
I have no idea of the legitimacy of Phyllis Mullenix’s complaints or the legitimacy of Forsyth’s rebuttals. Nor do I know what the final outcome of her legal action was.
Mullenix’s complaints could very likely have been genuine. Even today women do get discriminated against in employment and salaries. Their complaints are often disregarded or treated in a sexist way. “Uppity” women can face retaliation. And things are better now than they were in the 1980s and 1990s. It is very likely Mullenix was granted an out-of-court settlement.
But one thing I am sure of – she was not “sacked’ for her fluoride research or publication of her fluoride paper. Any complaint made by colleagues about that work would have been perfectly normal and expected – and she herself, at the time, did not attribute any retaliatory action to her fluoride research.
So, yet another case where it pays to check the claims made by anti-fluoride activists.
Featured image credit: NYC Coalition Against Artificial Fluoridation