Carleton Jones

A BITE OF DENTAL HISTORY

December 02, 1990|By Carleton Jones

The first week of November 150 years ago was a very busy time for Baltimoreans. Everybody was excited about the imminent presidential election (Nov. 3), which was preceded by the usual election-time rioting (the night before on Baltimore Street). The Lexington fishing club was getting ready for its Wednesday evening rally at the bar of the New Market engine house downtown, and Mayor Sam Brady was taking his oath of office.

Another important event took place that week in the city, one that continues today to have an effect on the dental health of people in Baltimore and far beyond.

By the 1830s, professional dentistry had virtually two generations of practice behind it, with 1,200 practitioners. But there was no central professional education system. The "vast majority" of dentists "had not received adequate instruction in dental science," according to the academic men of the day.

This situation was more than taken in hand by the George Washington of the profession, Horace Hayden, a Connecticut native with four decades of dental practice among Baltimore's 67,000 citizens. Entering his 70s, he pushed for establishment of formal dental education in his adopted town.

Joining him were Chapin A. Harris, a New Yorker who came to Baltimore in 1830 to study with Hayden, and two accredited physicians, Dr. Thomas E. Bond Jr. and Dr. Henry Willis Baxley.

That first week in November 1840 each delivered dedicatory lectures opening the world's first dental school -- at 13 S. Sharp St. in downtown Baltimore. It was called the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery.

"Gentlemen," said Dr. Harris to his students, "the profession for which you are preparing is honorable; it is useful; it is one that will enable you to be serviceable to your fellows -- to relieve much of human pain and to mitigate many mortal woes."

The Calvert Street Baptist Church lent its rooms for the launching of the dental college, which began its first classes on Nov. 3 with five students. (The first two graduates were certified the following spring.)

Like the Johns Hopkins Hospital, which would be founded more than a generation later in Baltimore, the dental school was launched by a legendary "big four," a group of men credited with cementing the institution into form and world fame. Their work glittered with "firsts," not only in the founding of a school but in helping to establish the first national dental association in any country.

Some of the inventions of the newly organized profession do not sound like fun (William W. H. Thackston's 1850 drill-stock for opening cavities in molar teeth, for example) but they all meant a march ahead from the long, dark ages of tooth care, which had really amounted to the dentist pulling out what hurt.

In all, there have been hundreds of other technical and operative innovations in the field of dentistry since those pioneering days.

Years passed and competing dental faculties were organized, but the Baltimore college continued its renowned program. One student was famed dentist-artist Adalbert Volck, who sided with Dixie in the Civil War. Another was Basil Manly Wilkerson of the 1868 class, who invented the first hydraulic dental chair, marketed at $175.

The profession's educational programs began reaching the public, too, not the least of which were public notices that informed citizens of the do's and don'ts of dental care, including such warnings as sugaring a baby's bottle may wreck the infant's teeth. *

For an engaging look at the history of dentistry, visit the National Museum of Dentistry at 666 W. Baltimore St. Formally opened to the public on Nov. 5, the museum is the first ever dedicated to the milestones and progress of the dental profession. There is no admission charge. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Fridays. For more information, call 328-8314.

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