Female dental hygienist showing young boy how to clean teeth

Every February, Black History Month is celebrated to honor the achievements of African Americans and their central role in U.S. History. At Smiles Dentistry for Kids, Dr. Matt and his dedicated team commemorate the accomplishments of African American dentists and other trailblazers throughout American History. In honor of Black History Month, here are four African American dentists you should know about: 

Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman: First African American Dentist

Son of formerly enslaved people, Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman, cultivated curiosity and enthusiasm for dentistry after working as an apprentice to his mentor, Dr. Henry Bliss Noble. Noble encouraged Freeman to train for a career in dentistry conventionally. After being turned away by two schools for his race, Freeman applied to Harvard Dental School. In 1869, Harvard awarded Freeman a Doctor of Dental Medicine degree.

Post-graduation, Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman moved back to his birthplace of Washington, D.C. Subsequently, he practiced dentistry until he passed away in 1873. In 1909, the Washington Society of Colored Dentists renamed the Robert Tanner Freeman Dental Society as a tribute to our country’s first African American Dentist.

Dr. George F. Grant: First African American Harvard Professor

Also, the son of formerly enslaved people, Dr. George Franklin Grant graduated from Harvard’s Dental School a year after Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman. He was the second African American man to receive a dental degree in the United States. 

After graduation, he served as the first African American faculty member at Harvard and was a part of the Department of Mechanical Dentistry. We can thank Dr. Grant for his contributions to congenital cleft palate procedures. For instance, Grant patented a prosthetic device that helped patients with cleft palettes improve their ability to communicate and eat. In the late 1880s, Dr. Grant founded the Harvard Odontological Society and was elected President of the Harvard Dental Association.

Fun fact! Aside from his contributions in dentistry, Dr. Grant invented the first wooden golf tee too.

Dr. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins: First African American Female Dentist

In 1890, Dr. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins became America’s first African American female dentist. Tennessee native, Rollins was orphaned as a teenager. Shortly afterward, she went to live with her Aunt in Ohio. Here, Rollins found work as a seamstress and dressmaker. While finishing high school, she worked in Dr. Jonathan Taft’s dental practice and gained hands-on experience in dentistry.

Later, Taft became the first dean of the University of Michigan’s Dental College. He supported admitting women into his program and mentored Rollins to help her prepare for the entrance exam.

After graduating from the University of Michigan and obtaining a Doctorate of Dental Surgery, Dr. Rollins moved to Cincinnati, OH. She became the first African American woman to open her own dental practice in Cincinnati. After marrying her husband in 1895, she relocated to Chicago, IL. Here, she became the first African American woman to open a dental practice in Chicago.

Visit Us Today

Modern dentistry wouldn’t be where it is today without the contributions of African American pioneers in dentistry. Dr. Matt and his team support all families and community members in Overland Park, KS. Call (913) 685-9990 or message us online to learn more about our practice and to see if we can help jump-start your child’s oral health.

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