National Dentists Day

March 4, 2022

Did you know that the man depicted in Grant Wood’s iconic 1930 painting “American Gothic” is actually American dentist Byron Henry McKeeby? It is possibly one of the most familiar images of the 20th century and one of the most famous paintings in the American art world.

Dr. Byron Henry McKeeby was born in 1867 in Birchardville, Pennsylvania. He studied dentistry at the University of Iowa, graduating 1894 and founding his first practice in Winthrop, Iowa. He moved to practice dentistry in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1901.

It was in Cedar Rapids that one of Dr. McKeeby’s dental patients, artist Grant Wood, approached the dentist to ask him to model in his painting. Wood had found a small white wood painted house of Carpenter Gothic style, the Dibble House, which he wished to paint with “the kind of people I fancied would live in that house.” Dr. McKeeby was one of these people, along with the artist’s sister, Nan.

Dr. McKeeby held a pitchfork while the artist’s sister wore a colonial print apron to add a touch of 19th century Americana. Since Dr. McKeeby was 62 and Nan was 32, it is implied that Nan is the farmer’s daughter. Wood entered the painting in a contest at the Art Institute of Chicago, for which he won a $300 prize. The Art Institute of Chicago later bought the painting, making Dr. McKeeby’s face one of the most recognized in the art world. The painting still hangs there today. Dr. McKeeby died in 1950 at the age of 82 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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