A look at the impact women have had on the field of dentistry over the years
In 1978, Dr. Harriet Seldin’s patients would often tell her that she was the first female dentist they’d ever seen.
And it’s no wonder, because that same year, only 15.9% of first-year dental students were women. Ten years before that, women made up just 1.1% of the student body.
Women in dentistry have progressed by leaps and bounds over the past hundred years.
And in honor of Women’s History Month, we’re going to reflect on the perseverance, strength, and commitment it took to come this far, and how women have shaped the field of dentistry into what it is today.
The First Woman to Practice Dentistry
If patients responded to Dr. Seldin the way they did in 1978, imagine how people reacted to Emeline Roberts Jones in 1855!
At the age of eighteen, Emeline married a dentist named Daniel Jones, who didn’t think women were cut out for the profession.
According to the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, her husband was of the mind that “dentistry was no occupation for the ‘frail and clumsy fingers’ of a woman.” And unfortunately, much of the scientific community felt the same way back then.
But Emeline was drawn to dentistry and became determined to learn. So, she began studying (and practicing) her newfound interest in secret.
That meant she had to find candidates who were willing to let her practice filling and extracting teeth. Woman dentist or not, that’s a lot to ask!
But fortunately, she was able to perform several hundred fillings and extractions over the next year, and her husband could no longer ignore her knowledge and expertise.
In 1855, at the age of nineteen, Emeline’s husband finally allowed her to use her self-taught skills on some of his patients––albeit reluctantly.
But within just four years, she and her husband became partners, and she garnered an excellent reputation for herself in Danielsonville, Connecticut.
The amount of sheer determination, focus, and hard work it must’ve taken to teach herself how to become a dentist is nothing short of amazing.
By the time she retired in 1915 (six decades later), she had opened her own practice, served on the Women’s Advisory Council of the World’s Columbian Dental Conference, was elected to the Connecticut State Dental Society, and became an honorary member of the National Dental Association.
Considering her unwavering dedication and incredible achievements, it’s not a stretch to say that Emeline Roberts Jones paved the way for all the women in dentistry who came after her.
The American Association of Women Dentists
In 1921, not long after Emeline Roberts Jones retired, the American Dental Association (ADA) held their annual meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
At the event, twelve female dentists in attendance decided to found the Federation of America’s Women Dentists (now known as the American Association of Women Dentists, or AAWD).
The AAWD states that the purpose of their organization wasn’t to separate themselves from the male dentists, but to:
“have an organization that fostered networking, sharing common goals and dreams, and fostering friendships.”
And the group still exists to this day.
The First President of the AAWD
As their first president, they appointed Minnie Evangeline Jordon, former second vice president of the Southern California Dental Association and visionary pioneer of children’s dentistry.
Jordon was one of the first dentists to apply her skills to help children conquer their fear of the dentist and develop preventive care techniques, and she even published the first textbook on pediatric dentistry.
She also realized the dangers of baby bottle tooth decay and understood the importance of providing psychological training to dentists tasked with treating children.
Without her groundbreaking discoveries and expertise, who knows how far behind we would be in children’s dentistry?
A Century of Advocacy and Empowerment
If you have a sharp eye, you may have noticed that the AAWD was founded exactly one hundred years ago this year!
This organization provides its members with access to a vast network of fellow women dentists, acknowledgment awards, discounts, and members-only rates.
Celebrating a century of recognition and advancement for women in dentistry, the AAWD continues to be a pillar of support in the field.
The First Woman Dentist in the US Navy
Believe it or not, the first female dentist to join the US Navy wasn’t born in America.
Sara Gdulin Krout––who had a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) degree from both her home country of Latvia and the University of Illinois College of Dentistry––had to do some fancy footwork to get into the military.
She already had a well-established dental practice in Chicago, but when the US joined the war in 1941, she decided she wanted to help out.
When Krout was denied entry because women dentists weren’t allowed in the Navy at the time, she didn’t let that stop her. To get around the restriction, she joined the US Navy Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program.
She served as a dentist on active duty in the Great Lakes Naval Training Station from 1944-1946. Thanks to the WAVES program’s benefits, she enjoyed the same rank and pay as her male counterparts.
The First Female Dean of a Dental Program
Just over ten years later, in 1958, Jeanne C Sinkford earned her DDS from Howard University in Washington, DC.
According to the AAWD, after teaching there for some time, she was promoted to professor and associate professor.
Then, in 1975, Sinkford was appointed the dean of the Howard University School of Dentistry, making her the first female in history to be the dean of any dental school. Simultaneously, she became the first African American female dean of any dental school.
Sinkford held the position until 1991 when she moved on to join the Center for Equity and Diversity at the American Dental Education Association. There, she applied her experience as a dean to support women on their journey to becoming dentists.
The ADA’s First Female President
The same year Jeanne Sinkford stepped down from her dean position, another prominent woman dentist made history.
Known as a role model for many young women, Geraldine Morrow became the ADA’s first female president from 1991 to 1992.
Morrow spent most of her career serving her community in Alaska and was a true inspiration to all her fellow dentists––both men and women. One of her colleagues in the Alaska Dental Society had this to say about her:
“Gerry Morrow broke America’s glass ceiling…Her success came at a time when dentistry was beginning to evolve as a profession that welcomed women as equals. She was a pioneer and championed the cause of equality.”
Since Morrow’s tenure, three other women dentists have served as president of the ADA, which continues to be a shining example of equality in dentistry.
The Past 40 Years of Progress
The ADA reports that forty years ago, 7% of dental school graduates were women.
By 2017, that number had shot up to 49%. And 60% of all practicing dentists under forty-four years old were women.
In 2019, 18% of all dental school deans were women, and female dentists made up 28% of all state dental society presidents.
Less than a year ago, data showed that of the 201,117 dentists in the United States, 34.5% of them were women. All said and done, that works out to about 70,000 female dentists.
Looking at these numbers, we could very well see dentistry become a female-dominated field before too long. And if the past hundred years are proof of anything, the dental world would surely benefit from it!
Women in Dentistry: Against All Odds
Keep in mind, these inspirational women weren’t dealing with everyday issues at the office.
They were overcoming the seemingly insurmountable hurdles of discrimination based on their gender and race.
Emeline Jones had to teach herself to become a dentist in secret. Can you imagine?
Learning a musical instrument is hard enough! But teaching yourself to extract someone else’s tooth? Absolutely mindblowing!
Sara Krout had to trick the system into letting her help her fellow Americans during a global crisis. A true maverick that led the way for women dentists in the military for years to come.
The women we discussed above helped usher in a new age where female dentists could enjoy the freedoms and positions of influence that men had for so long. And we honor all their hard work and sacrifice this Women’s History Month.
Celebrating Women in Dentistry
At Dental Express, equality in dentistry is a matter of principle, and we foster an inclusive atmosphere in each of our practices in the San Diego area.
If you want quality dental care in a family atmosphere, call us for more information or to set up an appointment. We’d love to welcome you to our family!