February is Black History Month — a time to honor and remember those who fought against racial discrimination and advocated for equality in the United States when it hadn’t yet existed. Black leaders of the civil rights movements are an essential part of American history, whose names and accomplishments should be celebrated, not just in February, but of every month of the year. Regardless of if they made political history, artistic history, entertainment history or scientific, these trailblazers have led the way to mold a better history for our country.

While dentistry is one of the world’s oldest medical professions dating way back to around 5000 B.C it was not modernized until the 1700’s. Through the modernization period, African Americans had severe difficulties seeking proper dental care.

In the late 1800’s, three people changed the dental industry forever. A former seamstress, and two sons of former slaves– Robert Tanner Freeman, George F. Grant and Ida Gray Nelson Rollins changed the world.

Robert Tanner Freeman

Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman, the son of former slaves, picked up an interest in dentistry after working for his mentor, Dr.Henry Bliss Noble. After being rejected from multiple dental schools because of the color of his skin, Dr. Freeman went on to enroll at Harvard University’s School of Dentistry and graduate as part of their inaugural class. Following his 1896 graduation, he became the nation’s first African American dentist.

George F. Grant

Similarly, to Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman, Dr. George F. Grant was also the son of former slaves. He entered and graduated from Harvard University’s dental school in 1870, and went on to become the first ever African American faculty member of Harvard University, working in their department of mechanical dentistry. Dr. Grant also made several notable contributions to cleft palate procedures as well. Aside from his success in the field of dentistry, and instructing he also invented the wooden golf tee.

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins

Dr. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins became the first African American female dentist in 1890. Prior to dentistry she worked as a seamstress who later began to work under a dentist prior to studying for her entrance exams. Dr. Rollins enrolled in the University of Michigan School Of Dentistry in 1887, and graduated in 1890. After graduation she relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio. In Cincinnati she was the first African American woman to own a practice. After getting married in 1895, she relocated to Chicago and opened her own practice again, being the first African American woman to do so.

These three individuals changed the lives of generations to come, changing history for the better and the world of dentistry. Oral health is essential to the overall health and wellbeing of a person. Each time you visit your professional dentist, thank these trailblazers for making such historic strides, and bringing the dentistry field into what it is today!

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