The first female dentists and dental assistants were pioneers for other women in the dental field, and unfortunately, like a well-filled cavity, are barely acknowledged. Many of these women receive little to no recognition. It is to change that inequality and shed light women trailblazers in dentistry.
To understand how far women have come in this field, it is crucial to first have a deeper understanding of the timeline of dentistry as a whole. According to the American Dental Association, while the history of dentistry stretches back all the way to ancient times, Women haven’t been documented as getting involved or accepted as practitioners until the mid-1800s.
Obviously, we as a species have had teeth for quite a while, and without knowledge of proper dental hygiene and care, things go terribly wrong. Teeth ache, rot, and decay, leaving people in pain. Thus, it is only reasonable that people have questioned how it all works since ancient times. It is believed that the first “dental practitioner”(1) was an Egyptian man named Hesy-Ra who lived in 2600 BC. Around 400 BC, it is believed that Greek physician Hippocrates and philosopher Aristotle “[wrote] about dentistry, including the eruption pattern of teeth, treating decayed teeth and gum disease, extracting teeth with forceps, and using wires to stabilize loose teeth and fractured jaws”(1). Throughout the Middle Ages and then on into the 18th century, dentistry developed as a profession in and of itself, with men at the forefront of it all. In 1841, Alabama tried to have dentistry became a regulated job requiring a license to practice, but that fell through. More men continued to practice and research dentistry without a flop.
Emiline Roberts Jones became the first woman to practice dentistry in the United States in 1855. Her husband, a dentist, believed women were not well suited for dentistry. Emiline did not let this deter her in she studied in secret and showed her husband a jar of successfully extracted teeth, proving his idea on women and dentistry wrong. After that she became his dental assistant. She was nationally recognized as the first woman dentist at the 1893 World’s Columbian Dental Congress.
In 1866, Lucy Hobbs Taylor came around. She graduated from the Ohio College of Dental Surgery, becoming the first woman to earn a dental degree. On breaking the gender barrier Taylor wrote, “People were amazed when they learned that a young girl had so far forgotten her womanhood as to want to study dentistry”. This was a big deal. At the time, women weren’t often seen as capable of performing such tasks and was even denied entrance admittance to the Eclectic Medical College in Cincinnati. After studying dentistry she opened up her own practice, first in Ohio and the in Iowa. She was also active in politics and campaigned for women’s rights. She viewed her accomplishments in dentistry as doing her part in ensuring women were recognized as equal to men.
In 1890, Ida Gray Nelson graduated from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry”(1) becoming the first African-American woman to earn a dental degree. This was extremely influential seeing as she not only crossed gender barriers but also racial barriers in order to do what she wanted. As well a breaking the race barrier in dentistry she was involved in many clubs. She served as vice president of the Professional Women’s Club of Chicago, and was a member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, a group organized to maintain the only black women’s shelter in Chicago.
Unfortunately, the amount of female dentists is still exceedingly lower than the number of male dentists in the world; “Currently, women make up about 19% of U.S. dentists”(6). Slowly but surely though, women have become more integrated into Dental careers, as both assistants and Doctors of Dental Science. “The American Dental Association projects that women will be 28% of the dental workforce by the year 2020”(6). Women like Lucy Hobbs and Ida Gray have helped to advance the diversity of both gender and race in the field. They took chances and fought against the current. This just goes to show that there has been and still are a number of influential women in the field of dentistry, dating all the way back to the 1800s, and probably before, even if we don’t often hear about them. They all have put in a lot of work, and they all have helped us who wish to follow in their footsteps have a relatively easier experience.
Isobel Hall, Women’s Museum of California Intern
- “History of Dentistry Timeline.” History of Dentistry Timeline, www.ada.org/en/about-the-ada/ada-history-and-presidents-of-the-ada/ada-historXXXXXy-of-dentistry-timeline.
- Griffin, Paul A. “Women’s History Month: Women in Dentistry.” Paul A. Griffin, DDS, XXXXXPA, 10 Mar. 2015, paulgriffindds.com/womens-history-month-women-dentistry/.
- “RealTime CPAs – Trusted Business Advisors.” Women in Dentistry: A History Lesson, www.realtimecpas.com/Women-in-Dentistry–A-History-Lesson-1-23.html.
- Sacks, Anna. “Meet the Dental Products Report Top 25 Women in Dentistry for XXXXX2017.”Staging.dentalproductsreport.advanstar.com, 4 Oct. 2017, www.dentalproductsreport.com/dental/article/meet-dental-products-report-top-2XXXXX5-women-dentistry-2017?page=0%2C3.
- “Timeline: Women Dentists.” University of Michigan School of Dentistry, 22 May 2014, http://dent.umich.edu/about-school/sindecuse-museum/timeline-women-dentists.
- “Women in Dentistry.” DentistryIQ, 1 Mar. 2005, www.dentistryiq.com/articles/wdj/print/volume-3/issue-3/focus-on-career-choicXXXXXes/women-in-dentistry.html.