frank zelko headshot on backdrop of cup of water

A University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa associate professor of history received an esteemed environmental history national honor.

Frank Zelko was awarded the 2019 Alice Hamilton Prize for best article by the American Society for Environmental History for his piece titled Optimizing nature: Invoking the “natural” in the struggle over water fluoridation in the journal History of Science.

“I was very pleased to hear that I had won the award. It’s always great to be appreciated by one’s academic peers,” Zelko said. “The only disappointment was that, because of the cancelation of the society’s annual conference due to COVID-19, I didn’t have the award presented to me in person. That will have to wait until next year’s meeting in Boston.”

Zelko’s article focused on water fluoridation in the mid-twentieth century and how early proponents portrayed the practice as ‘natural.’ Zelko’s research determined this was a political move and had little to do with science because the substance used in fluoridation is an untreated toxic waste product of fertilizer and aluminum industries. Furthermore, in places where fluoride compounds did occur naturally in water, such as China and India, significant health problems arose. The same toxicologists who signed off on water fluoridation used identical logic in defending the addition of lead to gasoline. Zelko said it was part of the pre-environmental scientific hubris expressed in the slogan ‘better living through chemistry.’

“Dr. Zelko’s project on the history of municipal water fluoridation in the U.S., funded in part by a grant by the National Institutes of Health, shines a light on questions of environmental science, policy and the economy,” UH Mānoa Department of History Chair and Associate Professor Shana Brown said. “His research is of great benefit specifically here in Hawaiʻi where the health and sustainability of our water resources must be a top priority.”

“The Alice Hamilton Prize is one that recognizes outstanding scholarship and professional accomplishment. UH and the College of Arts and Humanities are lucky to have a scholar of Professor Zelkoʻs caliber in the critically vital field of environmental history,” UH Mānoa College of Arts and Humanities Dean Peter Arnade said.

—By Marc Arakaki