Honoring dentist trailblazers during Black History Month

Posted on February 5, 2021 in General oral health

Black woman dentist going over dental x-rays with male patient

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

Ida Gray Nelson 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, she moved to her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, to open her own practice.

Robert Tanner Freeman and George Franklin Grant

Robert Tanner Freeman and George Franklin Grant were a part of the inaugural class of Harvard Dental School in 1867

Dr. Freeman became the first African-American to receive a dental degree in the United States in 1869.  Upon graduation, he opened a private practice in Washington D.C. He became an influential member in his community and mentored African-American youth interested in studying medicine. Unfortunately, he died in 1973. 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.”

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.