Pioneers of Dentistry: 3 Black Dentists Who Broke Barriers

January 26, 2016

In the late 17th century, African American patients had a tough time seeking proper dental care. And unfortunately, dentists of color were even harder to come by.

Prior to dental schools, aspiring dentists learned the trade through apprenticeships which was often limited to white practitioners. When the first dental school opened in 1840, it refused to admit students of color – a trend that continued for a couple decades.

These barriers limited care to underserved communities, and dissuaded bright and capable applicants from pursuing medical careers.

It didn’t stop everyone. Here are 3 African American dental pioneers:

1. Robert Tanner Freeman

The child of slaves, Dr. Robert T. Freeman emerged from poverty to become the first professionally trained black dentist. He entered Harvard Medical School in 1867, 4 years after the end of the Civil War. Following his graduation, Freeman mentored black youth who wanted to pursue careers in dentistry.

2. George Franklin Grant

Dr. George F. Grant enrolled in Harvard Medical School shortly after Dr. Freeman. Upon graduating, he became the University’s first black faculty member and taught at the School of Mechanical Dentistry for 19 years.

3. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins

Growing up in a single-mother household, Dr. Nelson Rollins worked as a seamstress to support her family. Her career path changed when she took a part-time job working for Dr. Jonathan Taft, the first Dean of the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. Soon after, he admitted Rollins to U of M and she became the first black female dentist.