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  • Nikesha B

3 Famous First in Dentistry

We all know representation is important. Celebrating said representation— specifically of marginalized groups in places where they are barely ever recognized— is a wonderfully beautiful thing. The month of February is known as Black History Month in Canada. During this month, we acknowledge and applaud the excellence and skill of those in Black history who took on leadership roles, educating and pushing barriers for their community along with achieving great things. In honor and celebration of Black history month, we at TorontoTooth think it’s important for us to acknowledge the struggle of people who have paved the way and inspired others that look like them to pursue similar pathways or ambitions.

When it comes to marginalized groups there is always someone, or a group of someones who were there to break barriers for others and provide representation for the community. First will always be first, so it’s a given that we’d thank and acknowledge the people that came before to open up pathways for us to follow. Let's talk about a few of the strong Black leaders that did what it took to earn the title firsts in the field of dentistry.

The saying goes “Ladies first!”; let's start off our list with the first black female dentist Ida Gray Nelson Rollins (also referred to as Ida Gray, Ida Gray Nelson, or Ida Gray Rollins). Ida Gray born in 1867 started off with a part time job in a dentist office and through the allyship of her employers, Dean Jonathan Taft of the University of Michigan and William Taft, Ida became the first African-American woman to graduate from dental school. She later opened a practice of her own where she was practicing dentistry until about the mid 1930’s.

Next let’s talk about George F. Grant (born in 1847), who was the first Black dentist to teach at Harvard University. Like Ida Gray, George F Grant started in a dental office where he worked first as an errand boy, then assistant, before moving on to work as a dental assistant at Harvard dental school. Grant soon became a student at the Harvard school of Dental Medicine. After graduating with honours, he went back to become its first Black faculty member teaching mechanical dentistry. Grant was also later elected the president of the Harvard Dental Alumni Association.

And lastly, but still first, is the first Black dentist, Robert T. Freeman. Born in 1869 to former slave parents in Washington D.C, Freeman was supported by friend and mentor Henry Noble, working as his apprentice. Nole encouraged Robert to apply to dental school. Although Freeman was rejected multiple times, he reapplied to Harvard Medical school and was accepted after the petitioning of dean Nathan Cooley Keep to end the racial exclusion of minorities. Once he graduated, Freeman became the first African American dentist, opening his own practice and going on to become a cornerstone of his community by supporting and mentoring Black youth to follow in his footsteps. Freeman was later honoured by the national dental association, whose predecessor was named after him.

Toronto Tooth is a non-profit Agents of Change supported by Calumet and Stong Colleges of the faculty of health at York University. Our goal is to support communities by helping provide the homeless, specifically homeless children and youth with oral care products while also spreading awareness about income-related oral health inequalities in the G.T.A (Greater Toronto Area).

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