American Academy of Dental Science Records Now Open

By , July 18, 2017

The Center for the History of Medicine is pleased to announce the opening of the American Academy of Dental Science Records, 1868-1997 (inclusive) to research.

The American Academy of Dental Sciences was founded in 1867 in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the last national professional organizations for dentists founded in the nineteenth century in the United States. The founding of the Academy came towards the end of a national shift towards professional organization among dentists. The move towards organization aimed to position dentistry as a united profession, smoothing over divisions from earlier in the century which had led to public and private feuds and, many dentists felt, a general distrust among members of the public. The Academy was an independently organized society, not associated with either the American Dental Convention or the American Dental Association, the two other national groups for dentists extant at the time.

At the Academy’s founding meeting on October 19, 1867, E.T. Wilson was named the Academy’s first president with D.M. Parker as vice-president and E.N. Harris as secretary. Elections were held annually thereafter unless a member needed to step down from a position. This was not infrequent as dentists were a mobile profession and the change from ‘member’ to ‘corresponding member’ is frequent in meeting minutes. ‘Corresponding members,’ however, were expected to keep in contact with the organization and contribute to the business of the group.

The Academy held regular meetings from its foundation until the 1980s. Meetings generally included a topical discussion or special presentations and a dinner as well as a regular business meeting. The record books kept by the Academy’s secretaries form a remarkably full record of Academy activities.

Academy members were encouraged to bring before the meeting anything that might educate other members or help the development of dental science as a whole. In the early years of the Academy, patients were often brought in as visual aids when members explained particular techniques or materials they had used. Members also brought in equipment which they had designed or made improvements on, commented on current topics of interest such as the development of mechanical drills or methods of anesthesia, and discussed procedures they had used for dealing with particular kinds of dental work, including accidental injuries, cancers, tumors, syphilitic infections, and congenital deformities of the mouth. Patients were sometimes followed for years as the Academy would request updates on particularly interesting or unique work.

Larger topics were also discussed, often developing into ongoing discussions that lasted for years, such as the debate over the development of dental education in the United States as a whole. Many members of the Academy felt that dentists were under-educated in their field — and, as a result, under-valued — in comparison to other medical professionals, particularly physicians. The open question for many years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was what should be done about this. Members of the Academy generally held fast to the notion that dentistry was a science distinct from medicine and needed to be studied and trained for as such. Much like obstetricians during the same period, dentists felt that medical students who had taken a single class in basic dentistry or even just studied the anatomy of the skull were taking up dentistry as a career without sufficient preparation and thus devaluing the profession as a whole. Options discussed at the Academy included the foundation of independent dental colleges; requiring medical students to take a basic course of dental science as part of their regular training; or requiring dental students to take a medical course before specializing.

The Academy began to hold annual meetings in 1868 which gradually became large events where members were encouraged to bring wives or colleagues who were not yet members of the Academy. By the 1870s, the Academy was inviting speakers of note to address the meeting, such as Harvard president Charles W. Eliot who spoke in 1879 on the subject of dental education. Other speakers included notable dentists at the time… In 1876, the Academy published A history of dental and oral science in America to be published in time for the American centennial celebrations held in Philadelphia.

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