Extracting hundreds of teeth in secret? Subverting the college system when you’re not allowed in because of your gender? Traveling by dog sled to visit patients in Inuit communities? Women in dentistry have fought to work alongside their male peers, and through their own passion and perseverance, they have left a tremendous impact. Read on to learn about the impact of 10 female dentists who have shaped the history of the dental profession while also using their field of work to improve the lives of those in their communities.
1. Emeline Roberts Jones: The first practicing female dentist
A New England native, Emeline Roberts Jones married dentist Daniel Jones in 1854 at the age of 18. He believed that women were not suited to dentistry because of their “frail and clumsy fingers,” but Emeline persisted in secretly studying dentistry. After she had secretly filled and extracted several hundred teeth (yes, hundred), her husband allowed her to practice with him. She was 19. When she was 23, she became his partner, and when her husband died in 1865, she took over the practice and traveled around Connecticut and Rhode Island before settling in New Haven. Her career spanned 6 decades and in 1914 was made an honorary member of the National Dental Association.
2. Lucy Hobbs Taylor: The first woman to receive a DDS
While Emeline Roberts Jones was the first woman to practice dentistry in 1855, it wasn’t until 1866 that the first woman earned her DDS. That honor went to Lucy Hobbs Taylor (born in 1833). Dr. Taylor and her 9 siblings were orphaned when she was 12, and she spent much of her childhood supporting her family by working as a seamstress. She still devoted time to her education and moved to Michigan where she taught for 10 years. In this time, she discovered her passion for medicine and moved to Cincinnati to apply to the Eclectic Medical College.
Because of her gender, Dr. Taylor was denied entry, and so she went directly to the faculty: A supervisor from EMC tutored her and from there she applied to the Ohio College of Dentistry. Refused admission again, she studied with Dr. Jonathan Taft of the Ohio College of Dentistry. She opened her own practice in Cincinnati in 1861, and finally, 7 years after she had moved to begin her dentistry studies, she received her DDS in 1866 through the Ohio College of Dental Surgery. Dr. Taylor met her husband the following year and her love for her work was contagious: She convinced him to pursue dentistry and the pair practiced for another 20 years. By 1900, nearly 1,000 women had followed in Lucy Taylor’s wake and went into dentistry.
3. Ida Gray: The first African-American female dentist
Also referred to as Ida Gray Rollins and Ida Gray Nelson, Ida Gray, much like Lucy Hobbs Taylor, grew up an orphan. Overcoming an underprivileged childhood, Dr. Gray also encountered Dr. Jonathan Taft when she began working in his office while studying at Gaines High School in Chicago. She learned enough to enter the University of Michigan School of Dentistry in 1887, and graduated in 1990. While Dr. Gray grew up going to a segregated school, she became famous first in Cincinnati and later in Chicago for seeing both black and white patients, and when she began to practice in Chicago she inspired one of her patients, Olive M. Henderson, to become the city’s second black female dentist. As passionate about civic engagement as she was about dentistry, Dr. Gray was also the vice president of the Professional Women’s Club of Chicago, the vice president of the Eighth Regiment Ladies’ Auxiliary, and a member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club — a group that worked to maintain the only black women’s center in Chicago.
4. Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch: Dentist to earthquake refugees, Alaskan inuit, and female inmates
As seen with Dr. Gray, it didn’t take long for female dentists to make a big impact both in their field and in their communities, and Leonie von Meusebach–Zesch’s work takes the cake with her work touching the lives of those affected by the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Great Depression, and beyond. She earned her DDS from the San Francisco College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1902, and while she began as a dentist’s assistant, she soon took the wheel on her own career and wound up leaving a legacy that spanned Texas to Alaska.
After the devastating San Francisco earthquake, Dr. Meusebach-Zesch became a dental surgeon with the U.S. Army and treated earthquake refugees — her mother also helped document survivors as a volunteer with the Red Cross. Following the earthquake recovery efforts, Dr. Meusebach-Zesch went into private practice and worked as a dentist in the San Francisco Children’s Hospital and Maria Kipp Orphanage.
In 1912, she began to hold mobile dental clinics in Arizona in her Model T Ford, and treated all school children free of charge. When she moved to Alaska in 1915, she adopted a similar nomadic model and often traveled by dog sled to treat clients, before returning to California in 1930. With the Great Depression in full swing, she joined the Unemployed Exchange Association and offered dental services on a barter basis. Dr. Meusebach-Zesch also donated services to unemployment camps and school children with the Civilian Conservation Corps in this time, and in 1937 became the dentist for the California Institute for Women, working teaching female inmates to assist and working with migrant laborers and convict labor camps. If her life sounds amazing, that’s because it was.
5. M. Evangeline Jordon: The founder of pedodontics
In 1921, during the annual meeting of the American Dental Association, 12 female dentists convened in Milwaukee and formed the American Association of Women Dentists (formerly the Federation of American Women Dentists). M Evangeline Jordon served as its first president, but more than that, she was also one of the first dentists to focus her practice on pedodontics, or child dentistry. Dr. Jordon devoted her career to easing children’s fear of the dentist and pioneered preventative care with her patients.
6. Vada Watson Somerville: The civil rights dentist
Born in Pomona, California, Vada Watson Somerville received a scholarship to study at the University of Southern California through the Los Angeles Times in 1903. In 1912, she married a graduate of the USC School of Dentistry, John Somerville, and the couple founded the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP in 1914. With World War I beginning in the same year, Dr. Somerville decided to enter the USC School of Dentistry as well so that, if her husband were drafted, she could take care of his patients. Her state dental examination score was one of the highest.
The Drs. Somerville practiced together for 10 years, and by the time she retired from dentistry many patients preferred Vada over John. After leaving the practice, Dr. Somerville dedicated her efforts to the civil rights movement in Los Angeles. She established the Pilgrim House Community Center, which was dedicated to taking care of the needs of black families in Los Angeles. Both Vada and John Somerville are honored by their alma mater.
7. Sara Gdulin Krout: The Navy’s dentist
In 1944, immigrant Sara Gdulin Krout became the first woman dentist in the U.S. Navy. A dual-DDS from her native Latvia and the University of Illinois College of Dentistry, Dr. Krout was prevented from enlisting directly as a female dentist due to the military’s restrictions. In order to serve, she joined the U.S. Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services (WAVES) and served as a lieutenant. She was on active duty at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station from 1944 to 1946 and continued in the Naval Reserve until her retirement in 1961.
8. Jeanne C. Sinkford: The first female dean of any dental program
Born in 1933, Jeanne C. Sinkford began her studies at Howard University in 1949 when she was 16. Originally pursuing studies in psychology and chemistry, she turned her attention to dental school and went on to earn a PhD in physiology at Northwestern University. Dr. Sinkford’s work in academic leadership led to her becoming the first female dean of an American dental school in 1975 when she took over the leadership for Howard’s dental program, a position she held until 1991. From there, she became associate executive director of the American Dental Education Association, where she established its Center for Equity and Diversity in 1988. Sinkford received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Dental Association in 2015. And speaking of the ADA…
9. Kathleen T. O’Loughlin: The first female executive director of the ADA
In 2009, Dr. Kathleen T. O’Loughlin became the first female executive director of the American Dental Association. At the time of her acceptance of the position, Dr. O’Loughlin cited her father, who “as a socially conscious practicing dentist was [her] role model and inspiration.” In her work at the helm of the ADA, Dr. O’Loughlin has devoted efforts to improving the public’s oral health, particularly in underserved communities. This includes the ADA Foundation, CARE, which provides charity, access, research, and education for dentists in need. They helped to provide assistance to dentists affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, offer grants to dental school student groups, and offer scholarships, grants, and awards to support oral health education programs.
10. Sarah Thompson: Donating dental services to those in need
Anyone — regardless of gender — can be a dentist to make an impact on their community, whether they’re the first dentist or the 101st to do so, or whether they’re traveling with their equipment strapped to a Model T or have a brick-and-mortar practice in their hometown.
Take for instance Dr. Sarah Thompson, whose work in cosmetic dentistry has brought smiles to countless faces, including Karen. A senior citizen living in Glen Carbon, Karen’s financial constraints kept her from seeking dental care for a difficult dental condition. Through Donated Dental Services (DDS), Dr. Thompson extracted 5 problem teeth for Karen and donated an upper denture and lower partial. Karen now smiles bigger and brighter.
You can make an impact by changing one life. Learn more about volunteer opportunities with Dental Lifeline Network — no dog sled required.