Historical Women in Dentistry

June 15, 2018

In the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, it was universally accepted that none of the newly established dental schools would admit women as students. Preliminary educational requirements for admission effectively screened out most would-be applicants since very few educational institutions in America or Europe offered higher education to women.
As a female in the profession of dentistry, I cannot help but think about the women that came before me to pave the way for what an amazing career I have had. I decided to look into some notable ladies that crossed the gender barrier, breaking down walls for us all. Here’s what I found:
America’s first woman dentist was Emeline Roberts, who in 1854 at the age of seventeen, married her husband Dr. Daniel Jones of Danielson, Connecticut. Within a year she was assisting her husband in his dental practice and studying dentistry at night independently. In 1959 she became a partner with her husband and when he died in 1864, she took over the practice. She was elected to the Connecticut State Dental Society in 1893, after she had been practicing for thirty-four years. She carried on as a dentist by herself for sixty years.
Lucy Beaman Hobbs is credited for being the first woman in the world to receive a dental degree from the Ohio College of Dental Surgery. Her path, however, was met with resistance. After graduating at age sixteen from a teacher’s school, she tried to enroll in the newly organized Ohio College but the dean of the college informed her that “women are not admitted as students”. Hobbs went around the rules and found a graduated Ohio dentist that would take her on as a preceptor student and in 1861 she opened her own Cincinnati office. Doing well she moved to Iowa and was able to enlist the help of the Iowa delegation of the American Dental Association. They threatened to leave the ADA if Hobbs was not allowed to enroll in OCDS as a full-fledged student. Hobbs was admitted in 1865 and was granted her DDS degree on February 21, 1866.
“Dental nurses” began to provide prophylaxis treatment as a method to prevent disease in the 1880s. By 1906, Alfred C. Fones trained his assistant, Irene Newman, to act as an apprentice, scaling and polishing teeth. Fones disliked the term “dental nurse,” so he changed the title to dental hygienist. Although other dentists at that time were training their dental assistants to scale and polish teeth, by 1910 the Ohio College of Dental Surgery offered a formal course for “dental nurses.” (www.rdhmag.com) Irene Newman is considered by all to be the first dental hygienist in the world and as of 2015 there were over 300 accredited dental hygiene programs in the United States alone.
Malvina Cueria was only a teen in New Orleans when she began her career helping dentist C. Edmund Kells. Kells was a very successful dentist that had been assisted by his wife but as the business grew he needed additional help. This gave Cueria the credit as being the first hired dental assistant in modern history.
The profession of dentistry is rich in history. It has archaeological roots found as far back as the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) in the Babylonian culture. And although the United States is a very young country relative to those other areas, we can celebrate our own humble beginnings of dentistry for those of us practicing today. I celebrate those who came before and those that will come after me. I celebrate being a female in a respected career and love guiding students on their path into the amazing profession of dentistry.
From the desk of Janet Coon, Dental Assisting Department Head.
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