Antique find comes up short

August 06, 1994|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

While browsing through a New York antique store last year, Dr. Frank Heynick found a faded document that any devoted student of dental history might give his eye teeth for.

It was a diploma from the world's first dental school, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. It was dated July 15, 1840, the year the college opened. And, Dr. Heynick soon discovered, it appeared to be eight months older than humankind's oldest earned Doctor of Dental Surgery degree, granted by the same school in March 1841.

But yesterday, after searching through 140-year-old papers and after a climactic meeting in Roland Park with the 92-year-old dean of dental history, Dr. Heynick conceded his diploma isn't older.

Historians here decided the document dates to 1850, not 1840. Whoever filled in the blanks, they said, goofed by squeezing an "X" into the correct date. Instead of writing "MDCCCL" in Roman numerals, someone scrawled "MDCCCXL."

"How could anyone do that?" Dr. Heynick protested yesterday, tossing his hands in the air. "Switching a letter I could see. He just throws in an 'X'!"

Dr. Ben Z. Swanson Jr., a dentist and director of the University of Maryland's National Museum of Dental History, said the diploma, granted to Elijah Darwin Wheeler of Virginia, had puzzled him since soon after Dr. Heynick called to ask about it in the spring of 1993.

The museum owns the March 1841 diploma, awarded to Robert Arthur, who went on to become a prominent Philadelphia dentist.

"I was very intrigued by the call," Dr. Swanson said. "I did preliminary research and couldn't figure out how it could possibly be."

The problem was this: while the Wheeler diploma is dated July 15, 1840, the school didn't open for classes until Nov. 1 of that year. Dr. Heynick, 47, a Brooklyn-born physician who lives in the Netherlands, came to Baltimore this week to clear up the mystery.

First, he searched through the University of Maryland medical school's rare book collection. Then on Wednesday, he visited dental historian Gardner H.P. Foley, a retired professor of Dental Literature and Dental History at the University of Maryland.

The 92-year-old historian, the author of "Foley's Footnotes: A Treasury of Dentistry," found that a man named Wheeler had received an honorary degree in 1850. Between 1841 and 1910, the Baltimore school handed out about 150 of these degrees to already-practicing dentists who, by examination or simply by reputation, had demonstrated their competence in the field.

"Then I noticed that two of the men who had signed the diploma were not members of the faculty until well into the 1840s," Mr. Foley said.

At one time, Dr. Heynick thought the diploma might be worth $100,000, a tidy return on the $100 he spent to buy it.

Dr. Swanson Jr. said that, as far as he knows, Mr. Wheeler's honorary diploma is the only one still in existence. But that isn't the same thing as the world's oldest hard-earned DDS. Dr. Heynick's find, he estimated, might be worth $1,000.

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