5 Black Dental Pioneers Who Made History

Black history month header celebrating Black dental pioneers.

Dentistry is one of the oldest medical professions, dating back to 7000 B.C. As dental knowledge grew, aspiring dentists learned through apprenticeships that were often denied to women and people of color. When the first dental school opened in 1840, it would not teach people of color. According to the American Dental Education Association, the first Black dentist graduated dental school in 1869, and the first woman dental assistant started work in 1885. Check out these 5 Black dental pioneers who broke racial barriers in dentistry.

The First Black Dentist: Robert Tanner Freeman

Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman was one of the first professionally trained Black dentists in the United States. When he was a child in Washington D.C., he became friends with a local dentist, Dr. Henry Bliss Noble. Freeman later worked as an apprentice for Dr. Noble and was inspired to study dentistry.

Freeman applied to several dental colleges, but every college rejected him because he was Black. However, he did not give up. In 1867, after Harvard Medical School opened its admissions to African Americans and other minorities, Freeman began studying dentistry. He earned his degree on May 18, 1869.

After graduation, he returned to Washington D.C., and opened his own dental practice. Freeman became well-known in his community for his commitment to mentoring Black youth who were also interested in dentistry. He is a true Black dental pioneer!

The First Black Woman Dentist: Ida Gray Nelson Rollins

Dr. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins was the first Black female to graduate from a dental school in the United States. Orphaned as a teenager, Rollins lived with her aunt while finishing high school. She helped support her aunt’s family by working part-time at a dental office. This experience helped her pass the entrance exam for her dental degree. She enrolled in the University of Michigan School of Dentistry in 1887 and graduated with a Doctor of Dental Surgery in 1890.

She opened her first private dental practice in Cincinnati, Ohio and later moved to Chicago and continued to practice dentistry, becoming the first Black dentist in Chicago.

The First Black Professor at Harvard: George F. Grant

Dr. George F. Grant became the second Black dentist, graduating from Harvard University one year after Dr. Freeman. After graduating, Harvard hired Grant to continue his research on treating oral deformities like cleft palates. Grant made history by becoming the first Black professor at Harvard and the first Black dental professor in the nation.

Dr. Grant was also a great inventor. He developed a prosthesis to help people with cleft palates speak properly and a golf tee topped with a latex resin that was also used in root canals.

The First Black dentist in the Army: William Thomas Jefferson

Dr. William Thomas Jefferson was the first Black dentist in the United States Army. Jefferson began studying dentistry in 1889 at Howard University in Washington D.C. After one year, he decided to transfer to the Dental School of Chicago where he earned his degree in 1891.

In 1895, Jefferson joined the Army and became a lieutenant. During a deployment in Cuba, he realized that a lot of soldiers had dental issues, but there were no soldiers with dental training to provide care. He began offering his services to officers and soldiers in his spare time.

Olive Myrtle Henderson: The second Black female dentist in Chicago

Inspired by her dentist, Dr. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins, Olive Myrtle Henderson became the second Black female dentist in Chicago. She was also the first Black woman to graduate with a degree in dentistry from Northwestern University in 1908. She practiced dentistry for 40 years before retiring. Henderson was also an active member of the National Association of Colored Women.

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