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IU researchers to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame



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Joseph C. Muhler presents toothpaste and toothbrushes to two of the 12,000 young volunteers who took part in tests of a stannous fluoride toothpaste. Muhler and William Nebergall, who developed and patented the formula now used in Crest toothpaste, will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame this spring.  IU Archives Buy Photos

The iconic Sample Gates, the classic Little 500 bike race and fluoride toothpaste. Each of these are pieces of IU’s storied history, and the last is being recognized again by the nation. 

Two IU researchers, Joseph Muhler and William Nebergall, developed and patented the fluoride toothpaste formula that would be used in Crest toothpaste. They will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame this spring. 

The induction on May 2 will honor 17 other inventors and their inventions, alongside Muhler, Nebergall and their fluoride toothpaste. 

The school’s relationship with dental hygiene isn’t new to some students. It’s a popular theory among some students that Ballantine Hall looks like a toothbrush. 

“I’ve honestly never heard it before, but I can definitely see it,” freshman Lance Spreacker said.

Spreacker might not have known about this part of IU’s connection with dentistry, but he unknowingly supports another. He uses Crest toothpaste.

“Induction into our Hall of Fame requires candidates to hold a U.S. patent that has contributed significantly to the nation’s welfare and the advancement of science and the useful arts,” said Ken Torisky, a National Inventors Hall of Fame representative, in an email. 

The toothpaste’s ability to keep teeth healthy constituted Muhler and Nebergall’s contribution to the nation’s welfare. 

Muhler received his undergraduate, dental and doctoral degrees at IU. Though he worked 16-hour days about seven days a week, in his spare time he wrote detective novels, wrote Bruce Bliven Jr. in “The Professor and the Toothpaste.” 

He began studying decay reduction as a dental student. After finding one compound, stannous fluoride, was the most effective in preventing decay and keeping teeth strong, he and his team conducted experiments on rats and trials on members of the Bloomington community, according to his papers. 

The Dental Research Unit building was located at the present site of the Herman B Wells parking lot, where Wright Quad can be seen in the distance. IU researchers Joseph Muhler and William Nebergall developed and patented the fluoride toothpaste formula that would be used in Crest toothpaste. IU Archives Buy Photos

Muhler and Nebergall’s research found stannous, or tin, fluoride to be about 50 percent more effective in reducing tooth decay than the standard sodium fluoride formula.

Muhler began work on the project at the suggestion of his biochemistry professor, Harry G. Day, according to a Dec. 26, 1996, issue of the Herald-Times.

IU held the patent for the fluoride from 1952 to 1968, and the formula it used was licensed to Procter and Gamble, who began financially supporting the research in 1949. 

The fluoride toothpaste was then branded as Crest, which was formally introduced in 1956.

The story of the school’s involvement with fluoride toothpaste is now taught in a class called the Traditions and Cultures of IU. James Capshew is one of the authors of the class. 

“We tried to sample the whole history of the university through the methods of the class,” Capshew said. “The section on the development of Crest was a case study basically of these, what we informally called, the treasures of IU.”

The development of Crest, taught in the class, is now reaching national fame, thanks to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 

“A lot of people have patents, but not that many people are in the Hall of Fame. It’s a confirmation of the university’s quality,” Capshew said. “For IU history, it's also a sort of the beginning of the IU research university. After IU became a research powerhouse, Crest was one of the early success stories.”

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