Not only did the movie Marathon Man instill in me great appreciation for a decent dentist, but also my uncle Albert, my godfather. He started me well on my way to proper oral hygiene when I was five. He had a gentle touch, but I was always in a cold sweat whenever we went to his house for Thanksgiving. I was certain he had a secret dental chair and appropriate torture devices hidden in the pool house.
Well, that said, we all know everybody’s favorite huckleberry Doc Holliday was a dentist, but it was a baby girl, born Lucy Beaman Hobbs on March 14, 1833, in Constable, New York, who changed dental history.
At a time when a woman’s chief role was that of wife/mother/homemaker, Lucy’s only other choices were schoolmarm or nurse, proper but “spinsterish” occupations. But even as a little girl, Lucy Beaman Hobbs longed for the unexpected.
However, she caved a little bit, spending ten years in a Michigan classroom. But she always held tight to her dream of pursuing medical science.
Solely on the basis of her gender, the Eclectic College of Medicine in Cincinnati, Ohio rejected her in 1859. Nevertheless, one of the school’s professors gave her private lessons, and at his suggestion, she turned her interest to dentistry.
Again due to her gender, she could only pursue her dental studies as a private pupil. Fortunately, the dean of the Ohio College of Dental Surgery also took her under his wing. Later, she apprenticed herself to a graduate of the school. Again denied admission to the dental college –because of her gender — she started her own practice in Cincinnati in the spring of 1861 when she was 28.
She later moved her practice to Bellevue, Iowa (1862) and thence to McGregor, Iowa (1862-1865). In time, she came to be known by what sounds a bit like a Native American soubriquet: “the woman who pulls teeth.”
Interestingly, the Iowa State Dental Society accepted Lucy as a member in July 1865. Affirming that she had proven herself a worthy equal to male colleagues, the Society sent her as a delegate to the American Dental Association convention in Chicago that year. In November 1865, four years into her own dental practice, she was at last admitted to the senior class of the Ohio College of Dental Surgery.
Due to her expertise and to support from a small but devoted group of admirers, she earned her degree only a few months later, on February 21, 1866. Thus Lucy Hobbs thus became the first woman in the U.S. –and likely the world– to earn a doctorate in dentistry.
While practicing in Chicago, she met Civil War veteran James M. Taylor, and married the railway maintenance worker in April 1867. Under his wife’s guidance, James too became a dentist.
Late in 1867, the Doctors Taylor moved to the western town of Lawrence, Kansas, where they soon built a successful practice, focusing on women and children. Most patients referred to the highly-regarded dentist as “Dr Lucy.” She and James did not have children of their own, and after his death in 1886, she retired from most of her professional duties. However, she remained active in civic and political causes, most importantly the woman’s suffrage movement.
Peers and citizens alike hailed her as a pioneer in opening the doors for more women in dentistry. By 1900, almost one thousand women were taking part in the profession.
During her career in Kansas, Dr. Taylor wrote, “I am a New Yorker by birth, but I love my adopted country — the West. To it belongs the credit of making it possible for women to be recognized in the dental profession on equal terms with men.”
This courageous, determined woman died in Lawrence on October 3, 1910 at the age of 77. In her obituary, she was recognized as “one of the most striking figures of Lawrence [who] occupied a position of honor and ability, and for years she occupied a place high in the ranks of her profession.”
Since I am by nature a weenie, I can hardly describe my admiration for the strong pioneering women who came before, whose struggles and challenges have made a better world for me, for my daughter—and my son, too. During their childhood, my kids had a female dentist, a female pediatrician, and our pets were cared for by a female veterinarian. Pretty cool, no?
I don’t dare ask for comments today about your dental experiences, but I’d sure love to hear about the strong women you admire, and why.