Honoring dentist trailblazers during Black History Month
Black History Month is an opportune time to share some of the contributions African-Americans have made to the field of dentistry.
Ida Gray Nelson Rollins
Ida Gray Nelson Rollins was the first African-American woman to become a dentist in the U.S. She became interested in dentistry while working part-time in a dental office. This experience helped her pass the entrance exam for her dental degree. After receiving her degree at the University of Michigan in 1890, where she was just one of three women in her class, she moved to her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, to open her own practice. She later moved to Chicago with her husband and continued to practice dentistry here, becoming the first Black dentist in Chicago and served as president of the Professional Women's Club of Chicago.
Robert Tanner Freeman and George Franklin Grant
Robert Tanner Freeman and George Franklin Grant, both sons of people formerly enslaved, were a part of the inaugural class of Harvard Dental School in 1867.
Dr. Freeman (his parents took the surname “Freeman” as did many other former enslaved Americans after gaining their freedom) was accepted into Harvard after initially being rejected because of the school’s exclusion of non-white applicants. Dr. Freeman became the first Black American to receive a dental degree in the United States in 1869. Upon graduation, he opened a private practice in Washington D.C. where he was born and became an influential member in his community, mentoring Black youth interested in studying medicine. He died in 1873, only 4 years after his graduation. However, his legacy had a lasting impact in the dental field, and the National Dental Association adopted his mission to “extend dental treatment and education to the impoverished, the disabled, and people of color as well as those who may not seek proper care due to age.” (Interesting note: Dr. Freeman’s grandson, Robert C. Weaver, also a Harvard graduate, was the first Black American to serve as a Presidential cabinet member when President Johnson appointed him Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1966. Weaver also has a local connection – after WWII, he served as executive director of the Mayor’s Committee on Race Relations in Chicago.)
Dr. Grant became the second African-American to receive a dental degree in the U.S. in 1870. Upon graduation, he became the first African-American faculty member at Harvard University, where he taught in the Department of Mechanical Dentistry for 19 years. During his tenure at Harvard, he treated patients with cleft palates and invented a prosthesis to help his patients speak properly. In addition to his patent for his prosthesis for cleft palates, he invented and patented a golf tee (he was an avid golfer).
Dr. William T. Jefferson
Dr. William T. Jefferson was the first Black American to treat US Army soldiers in Cuba during the Spanish American War, where he served as a captain. He graduated in 1891 from American College of Dental Surgery in Chicago, which later merged with Northwestern University, and opened a practice on State Street in Chicago. He was an officer of the 8th Regiment, a unit of Black soldiers from Chicago. He was in Cuba as a commander, but soldiers there had a need for dental care. So, in addition to his command responsibilities, he provided free dental care. He described his dental experience while he was serving in a war: "While in the service, seeing the necessity of a dentist, I gave my services free in the hospital to the officers and soldiers of the 8th Illinois, 23rd Kansas and 9th Louisiana, U.S.V.”