The History of Women in Dentistry

Female dentist standing in an exam room smiling

Nowadays, female dentists are not out of the ordinary. In 2018, just over 50% of first-year dental students were women. However, this wasn’t always the case. 

In 1968, that same percentage was only 1.1%.  When an accomplished female dentist like Dr. Roberta Garceau attended dental school in the 1990s, women were just starting to gain equal footing in the industry. 

Women were largely barred from a college education and certain career pursuits for a long time. With determination, they managed to break into the dental industry and female dentists have slowly been increasing in number ever since. 

The First Female Dentists

Dental education today usually takes at least eight years, with continuing education on top of that. Dentists like Dr. Darlene Hart in Pembroke Pines, FL typically attend continuing education classes to keep up with the latest technology and techniques of dentistry. However, dental education was not always accessible to women.

The first women to work as dentists did so without a formally recognized education. The first woman to graduate dental school, Lucy Hobbs Taylor, was initially rejected from the Ohio College of Dentistry. The dean, Jonathan Taft, opted to teach her in his office instead. 

Hobbs went on to open her own practice in Iowa, and eventually the Iowa State Dental Society put enough pressure on the college to allow her to be a student. She only had to attend one session before they awarded her a DDS, recognizing her years of practical work as a dentist. 

Emeline Roberts Jones was nationally recognized as the first female dentist at the World’s Columbian Dental Congress in 1893. Also barred from receiving a formal college education, she studied anatomy on her own until her husband eventually allowed her to join his practice. 

Outside of America, Amalia Assur became the first female dentist in Sweden in 1852. Since dentistry was not legal for women to practice at the time, she had to get special permission from the Royal Board of Health.

Nine years later, Sweden legalized the practice of dentistry by women. In 1866, Rosalie Fougelberg became the first woman to work as a dentist after legalization.

Women in College

The first American woman to graduate from a dental program was Jennie Kollock Hilton. She attended the University of Michigan’s program and was an active proponent for women’s suffrage. Jennie and her sister Florence were both women’s rights activists and wanted to show that women were fully capable of education, as well as promising careers. 

Another graduate of the University of Michigan’s dental program was Clara Walworth MacNaughton. After her husband died, she pursued a dental career to support her family. After graduating from the program in 1885, she went on to become the vice president of the Michigan State Dental Society within four years. 

In the late 1800s, women from more countries began to enter the dental industry. In 1886, Margarita Chorné y Salazar became the first female dentist in Latin America. 

 In 1895, Lilian Lindsay became the first licensed female dentist in Britain, later going on to become the first female president of the British Dental Association in 1946. 

Female Trailblazers

The first African American female dentist, Ida Gray Nelson, also graduated from the University of Michigan. Jonathan Taft, the same dean who tutored Hobbs, encouraged Nelson to apply after she worked in his dental office during high school. Few dental schools accepted any minority candidates at all, but she earned her degree in 1890. 

Evangeline Jordon focused her dental work on the care of children’s’ teeth, becoming one of the founders of pedodontics. She introduced ways to help reduce children’s fear of the dentist and promoted a proper diet for the health of children’s teeth. Jordon later became the first president of the Federation of Women Dentists.

The first female president of the Ohio Medical College was named Gillette Hayden, earning the title in 1916. She founded the American Academy of Periodontology alongside Grace Rogers Spalding, a fellow female dentist. The two women showed that treating your gums is just as important as treating your teeth.

Today’s Female Dentists

Women continue to make their way into the industry, with many prominent dental organizations only recently getting female presidents. The American Dental Association, established in 1859, elected its first female president in 1991. Kathleen T. O’Loughlin became the first female executive director of the ADA in 2009 and still holds her position today.

Female dentists like Dr. Sirisha Krishnamurthy in Folsom, CA are not restricted by formal rules or bans from pursuing dentistry. In many modern countries, it’s normal for anyone of any gender, race, or religion to be able to decide their own course of life. 

However, it’s important to remember that the past was more restricted and celebrate those who got us where we are today. The first female dentists, who rebelled against the restrictions of society, carved the path for the equality we enjoy now.