(Guest Post by Collin Hitt)
Has any charity done more good in America than Joy Morton did as an entrepreneur? He was the founder of Morton Salt Company in Chicago. One simple innovation – iodized salt – positioned his company to be the dominant salt brand in America for a century. And that very same product changed the destinies of millions upon millions of people.
Joy Morton was a Midwest businessman. By all accounts he was a decent, upstanding member of his community, an honest man. He was a philanthropist. But his greatest contribution to mankind is in the millions of tons of salt he sold.
Morton was an entrepreneur, a money maker. He didn’t give away his salt. His job was to sell it. And like all entrepreneurs, he needed an edge, a way to stay ahead of the competition. Plenty of other companies were making cheap table salt. And of all things, a goiter epidemic and emerging medical science gave Morton the edge he was looking for.
Rewind to 1920. Morton Salt Company was based in Chicago – squarely in the middle of a region plagued by goiters. If you don’t know what a goiter is, check out a few images on Google. “An enlargement of the thyroid gland,” the medical definition doesn’t do goiters justice. They can be nasty, painful, even debilitating. There’s a chance you’ve never seen a goiter with your bare eyes. But in the early 20th century goiters were so common in the American heartland that the region was called the “goiter belt.”
We know now that the cause was iodine deficiency. In the early 1920s the people of the Midwest fed mainly on iodine-poor food. In coastal regions, where fish and other iodine-rich foods formed core parts of the diet, goiters were extremely rare. A person travelling west from Boston to Chicago needn’t have been a doctor to notice the sudden and widespread appearance of goiters on children. From an excellent, short article published in Nutrition, “History of U.S. Iodine Fortification and Supplementation.”
Prior to the 1920s, endemic iodine deficiency was prevalent in the Great Lakes, Appalachians, and Northwestern regions of the U.S., a geographic area known as the “goiter belt”, where 26%–70% of children had clinically apparent goiter. During the draft for World War I, a Michigan physician, Simon Levin, observed that 30.3% of 583 registrants had thyromegaly (including both toxic and nontoxic goiters), many of which were large enough to disqualify them from the military, in accordance with U.S. Selective Service regulations
Joy Morton solved the problem. By the 1920s, fifty years of science had slowly established the connection between iodine deficiency and goiters. Experiments were showing that iodine treatments could effectively eliminate the condition. The research on iodine was there for the world to see. But aside from a few scientists and physicians, next to no one read it or understood it – almost no one. The Morton Salt Company saw it and saw profit.
In 1924 Morton Salt began selling iodized salt. A massive marketing campaign followed. “Keep Your Family Goiter Free!” Can you imagine? Morton sold tons of salt and made tons of money at it, and in the process improved millions of lives. The goiter epidemic disappeared seemingly overnight and Morton Salt has been America’s favorite salt brand ever since. This accomplishment alone is worthy of the Al, but it turned out the effect of iodine intake reached far beyond curing goiters.
Iodine is vital for brain development. The World Health Organization today states plainly, “Iodine deficiency is the main cause of brain damage in childhood.” This was not known during Joy Morton’s time.
The impact of Morton’s Iodized Salt strains the imagination. The sudden, widespread introduction of iodine into the diets of millions of Americans created a natural research experiment. From a 2013 paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research:
Salt was iodized over a very short period of time beginning in 1924. We use military data collected during WWI and WWII to compare outcomes of cohorts born before and after iodization, in localities that were naturally poor and rich in iodine. We find that for the one quarter of the population most deficient in iodine this intervention raised IQ by approximately one standard deviation. Our results can explain roughly one decade’s worth of the upward trend in IQ in the US (the Flynn Effect).
One. Standard. Deviation. Countless foundations have invested countless dollars to achieve impacts a fraction of that size in [a] tiny fraction of the population – and most have failed. Morton accomplished it all with table salt.
The benefits of Morton’s salt extended even to children in the womb. From another excellent paper from NBER, released earlier this year:
In 1924, The Morton Salt Company began nationwide distribution of iodine-fortified salt. Access to iodine, a key determinant of cognitive ability, rose sharply. We compare outcomes for cohorts exposed in utero with those of slightly older, unexposed cohorts, across states with high versus low baseline iodine deficiency. Income increased by 11%; labor force participation rose 0.68 percentage points; and full-time work went up 0.9 percentage points due to increased iodine availability. These impacts were largely driven by changes in the economic outcomes of young women. In later adulthood, both men and women had higher family incomes due to iodization.
As a philanthropist, Joy Morton went on to do wonderful things with his fortune. But none of those things were as wonderful as what he did for people when he started selling iodized salt. And that’s why he deserves the Al.
Collin Hitt is an assistant professor in the department of medical education at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.