Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell


American dental education by 1900 had gone through much the same stages that had characterized medical education, with the one exception that it suffered a chronic handicap by being considered an inferior art.[23]  One consequence was that public regulation of both dental practice and dental education lagged behind similar developments in medicine. The Boston Dental College became a part of Tufts in the midst of a veritable revolution in the dental profession at the turn of the twentieth century that resulted in higher professional expectations and a greater awareness of the social responsibilities of both the individual dentist and the organizations set up to establish and enforce standards.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, dental disorders were treated as an incidental to medical practice, and extractions and repairs were largely the province of barber-surgeons and goldsmiths. When some attempt was made to systematize dental training, as a supplement to the time-honored apprenticeship system, the dental schools established were, like their companion schools in medicine, proprietary and didactic in character. They were frankly commercial enterprises, and many remained so until after the First World War.[24] 

The first professional dental journal was not published until 1839, and the American Society of Dental Surgeons was not organized until 1840. Out of this finally emerged the American Dental Association in 1859. State licensing boards for dentistry were also slow to develop. No real attempt to rate dental schools was


made until 1909, when the Dental Educational Council of America undertook the delicate and complicated task. By the same date, three independent bodies had been created, all attempting more or less ineffectively to do the same thing, namely, create a community of interest that might lead to a development of professional spirit and a measure of uniformity of standards in dental theory and practice. The first such organization was the National (American) Association of Dental Faculties (1884), followed by the American Institute of Dental Teachers (1893) and the Dental Faculties Association of American Universities (1908). Not until 1923-24 did the three organizations manage to consolidate and present something approaching a united front as the American Association of Dental Schools. Many of the Boston Dental College faculty belonged to the National Association of Dental Faculties.

The high point in numbers of dental schools, was reached in 1900, when fifty-seven existed. Only a handful had any affiliation with a college or university; the great transfer of dental schools from private ownership to university control took place after 1917.[25]  In this sense Tufts was one of the pioneers in recognizing, together with the dental college that it absorbed in 1899, the necessity of expanded resources for dental instruction and particularly a close relationship between medicine and dentistry. The number of dental schools had been reduced to forty-six in 1922, and to thirty-eight by 1929, three years after the Carnegie Foundation had investigated national dental practices in the same way as it had looked into medical education in 1910.

Admission requirements in the earliest dental schools were low by any standards, a problem that continued to plague dental educators for generations to come. At first the rudiments of a so-called English education (as contrasted with a Latin or classical education, which was considered superior) were all that was required. This often "meant little more than intelligence enough to arrange for the payment of entrance fees." An average of five months of instruction for one academic year was considered adequate. A model curriculum was first proposed for dental schools in 1899 and


required at least the equivalent of a high school education. Thereafter, advances beyond this point were steadily attempted, although in practice the goals were not always reached.

By 1917 the dental curriculum had been extended in some institutions to four years. The academic year had also been gradually lengthened and was uniformly extended to thirty-two weeks by 1909, thus coinciding with the academic year of universities, with which a few dental schools were coming to be associated. Even with these many advances, however, there were loopholes remaining to be closed. One was the practice, found also in medical education, of accepting "equivalents" for admission. After the Carnegie Report of 1926, dental schools who desired to receive the coveted Class A or B rating of the Dental Educational Council of the American Dental Association had to require a minimum of one year of college (or its equivalent) for admission. Paralleling this requirement were increased amounts of basic medical instruction, one result of which was the establishment of numerous pre-dental and pre-medical curricula in colleges and universities.

Progress had been made, but much remained to be done. In respect to the deficiencies that later generations were to uncover in American dental education, the Boston Dental College in the nineteenth century was no worse than, and in many ways superior to, its contemporaries. Far from becoming a source of embarrassment to Tufts College, it became a department to which the officers of the institution could look with confidence and a measure of pride.

The Boston Dental College that became a part of Tufts in 1899 had been chartered in 1868. It was to be located in Boston and was constituted "for the purpose of teaching dental science and art." A self-perpetuating Board of between eleven and fifteen Trustees was provided, authorized to confer the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery. According to the original charter, candidates were to be of good moral character and twenty-one years of age before they received a diploma. They were to have been examined by the faculty after having devoted three years to the study of dentistry with a dental practitioner who had been approved by the faculty or had been in practice at least eight years. Degree candidates were to have attended "two full courses of lectures" (two years), the second pursued in the dental college. This charter provision shows the persistence of the traditional apprenticeship technique common


to most professional training in the nineteenth century. The charter was amended in 1870 to provide more formal instruction, but the in-service idea was retained. Degree candidates were to have "pursued their professional studies three years under competent instructors and [to] have attended two full courses of lectures in the college" if they had had no previous training or experience. A certificate of attendance at one course of lectures "in any respectable dental or medical college, or five years' reputable practice" was considered a satisfactory substitute for the first course of lectures. In addition, candidates had "to maintain a thesis and undergo an examination to the satisfaction of the faculty, and satisfy the professors of operative and mechanical dentistry of their ability to meet satisfactorily the requirements of their art."[26]  By-laws adopted by the Trustees in 1878 provided, besides the customary officers, for a combined librarian and curator of a dental museum. At least six professors were to "deliver didactic and clinical lectures on the branches taught in dental colleges; viz., Anatomy, Physiology, Surgery, Chemistry, Operative and Mechanical Dentistry, with such other branches as the Board of Trustees may introduce." An infirmary was provided, and the faculty required that each degree candidate treat at least two patients requiring some dental operation and make one artificial denture. The student also had to produce the patients on whom his work had been done, such work to be approved by the appropriate faculty members. The thesis was to be written "on some subject pertaining to dentistry," and was to include, in addition, an approved specimen of mechanical dentistry to be deposited in the museum.

If an applicant, after presenting his credentials for admission, passed an examination administered by the dean, he paid a $5.00 matriculation fee, $100 for a "full course of lectures" that extended each year for twenty-seven weeks across two terms, a $5.00 demonstrator's fee, and a $30 diploma fee. The college furnished instruments for extracting and all materials used in the operative department, but the student had to supply all other instruments, including laboratory tools for both metallic and rubber work.


Students were informed that all necessary instruments could be purchased for about $50.

The Boston Dental College opened its doors in the fall of 1868 in a rented building on Tremont Street and graduated its first class (of two) the following year. By 1880 the college had produced 152 graduates and could boast of a faculty of eight professors headed by Isaac J. Wetherbee, D.D.S., one of the incorporators of the college, chairman of its Board of Trustees, and Professor of Dental Science and Operative Dentistry. In addition there were five lecturers, six demonstrators, and an instructor in the manufacture of teeth and continuous gums. Judging from the records, much emphasis was placed on the intimate relationship of medicine and dentistry, for four of the eight professors held M.D. degrees, and anatomy and physiology, pathology and therapeutics, and chemistry were prescribed subjects. Dissections were required, and for many years the dean of the college, John A. Follett, M.D., was Professor of Anatomy and Physiology. Students had access to the Massachusetts General Hospital, the Boston City Hospital, and the United States Marine Hospital for observation of "surgical diseases and operations of every kind." Most of the required textbooks were in anatomy, surgery, chemistry, medicine, and pathology. It was this continued stress on the medical aspects of dentistry that led the Boston Dental College eventually to merge with Tufts. A high proportion of the Trustees throughout the history of the dental college were themselves practicing dentists and held either dental degrees, medical degrees, or both. Occasionally a prominent Bostonian like Gamaliel Bradford, the biographer and literary critic, appeared on the Board, but laymen were the exception rather than the rule.

As the Boston Dental College expanded, it underwent several moves in downtown Boston and spilled over into parts of several buildings. It resided briefly on Concord Street and was then located on Montgomery Square off Tremont Street and not far from the Boston City Hospital. In 1893 plans were laid for a new building that could be designed specifically for the needs of the college, and a building fund was established for the purpose that had accumulated $18,000 by 1894 and over $30,000 by the time the school was amalgamated with Tufts College. Sites all over Boston were considered in the next few years, but nothing was settled on,


and housing remained critically short throughout the remaining history of the dental college. In the same year (1893), the provision of an oral hospital was recommended by the faculty and rooms were rented for the purpose - an arrangement lasting until 1896, when the building in use was slated for demolition by the owner.

Steadily rising enrollments, reluctance to reduce the size of the student body, and differences of opinion between the faculty and their Trustees over the need for expanded accommodations had by 1895 brought the dental college to a fork in its road. The whole situation of the school was discussed lengthily (and, judging from the record, heatedly) at a joint meeting of faculty and Trustees on October 15, 1895. This failed to bear out the bland remark made by President Capen to the Tufts Trustees in 1899 that the dental college had led a life of "uneventful success" until 1898. Subjects for dissection became difficult and expensive to secure. Conditions in the infirmary were congested and unsanitary. There were only 35 operating chairs for almost 200 students. Faculty morale was being lowered by overcrowded quarters and increased work loads, alumni as well as students were complaining, and Dr. Edward Branigan, the professor in charge, feared that the standards of the college would decline to such an extent that its excellent reputation would be seriously tarnished. The students' programs were so poorly arranged that great quantities of unassigned time were being used in loitering on sidewalks or patronizing neighborhood saloons. The only solution seemed to be the new building, about which there had been so much talk and so little action; or, if not that, a complete reorganization of the college or even affiliation with a medical school. All these possibilities were discussed in 1895.

The first personal link between the Boston Dental College and the Tufts Medical School had been forged in 1894 when Dr. John L. Hildreth, a Cambridge physician (elected to the Board of Trustees of the dental college in 1893) became Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Tufts Medical School. From 1896 to 1898 he served as its dean. His successor as dean of the medical school, Dr. Harold Williams, had likewise been elected to the Board of the Boston Dental College, in 1897. Even before then, a link of another sort had existed between the two schools, although the relationship was not too happy. In order to procure dissecting material, the dental


college had to depend on one of two sources for cadavers: local medical schools or supplies from outside the state. The only schools that could dispose of subjects were the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Harvard Medical School, and the school that became the Tufts Medical School in 1893. Harvard turned its surplus over to its own dental school; it was considered "not advisable to have dealings with the College of Physicians and Surgeons"; so the only source within the locality after 1893 seemed to be the Tufts Medical School. The major drawback there was the price of $40 charged for each subject - a charge considered excessive. So sources from outside the state were explored as well as the possibility of more reasonable prices from the Tufts Medical School. Dr. Hildreth was selected to conduct negotiations. To add to the difficulties posed by limited resources and space, the Trustees of the dental school approved a required course in bacteriology for which there was literally no space in the school.

The problem of obtaining dissecting materials became acute in 1896. Dr. Thayer, of the Tufts Medical School, reported that subjects were "very scarce" that year, and that the dental college had better count on none at all, at least from Tufts. To make matters worse, legislation enacted in 1897 prohibited the interstate shipment of bodies for dissecting purposes. Under the circumstances, the Tufts Medical School was no longer able to secure more than were needed for its own purposes and had nothing to spare for the dental college. It was at this juncture that the Boston Dental College requested permission to have its students receive their anatomical training in the Tufts Medical School. This was done after the dental college had investigated the possibilities at Boston University. Because there was insufficient room in the dental college, the college's officers tried to go a step farther and have the bacteriology course arranged in the same fashion, but apparently nothing came of either that possibility or negotiations to have the Tufts Medical School set up a special course in dissecting for dental students exclusively. The Tufts Medical School did move slightly in the direction of accommodating dental students. The medical faculty voted in 1897 to admit to the second-year class dental students who had completed one full course of lectures. However, such students had to pass an examination in the subjects of the freshman year before graduating.

Some of the Trustees of the dental college in 1898 thought that more could be gained by "turning students over to the Tufts Medical School for instruction in Anatomy, Physiology, Chemistry, Histology, Bacteriology, etc." than by attempting to build, particularly as the fund established to finance a new structure was still several thousand dollars shy of its goal. It was a short step to a decision to consolidate the dental college with an existing medical school. The first serious discussion of this possibility had taken place in 1896, when the system at Harvard of having first-year dental students attend classes in their own medical school was investigated and seemed to have noticeable advantages over the system in the dental college. The events of 1898 turned the possibility of merging with a medical school into a certainty.

The problem of obtaining cadavers for dissection by medical schools was alleviated in 1898 with the passage of a state law "For the promotion of Anatomical Science." Medical schools were allowed to obtain bodies that were subject to burial at public expense in Massachusetts and were not otherwise claimed by friends or relatives. The law merely worsened the plight of the dental college, because it effectively cut off any material it might have had from this source. The act provided for distribution only to medical schools. Hence the Boston Dental College's desire to complete the negotiations begun with the Tufts Trustees the previous summer was reinforced. There was further pressure to make some arrangement with a medical school for provision for instruction in practical anatomy because it was a requirement of the American Association of Dental Faculties, with which the dental college was affiliated. This organization suddenly notified the dental college in the summer of 1898 that it "would leave the College name off the list of reputable colleges unless we have dissection by Jan. 1, 1899."

The Boston Dental College actually had considerable to fear from what amounted to an ultimatum, for no arrangements had yet been completed with the Tufts Trustees for use of the medical school's facilities, and the dental college had not been able for two years to provide dissections. If its records are to be trusted, the crisis for the dental college was a serious one on yet another score. A small but articulate group of disgruntled dentists was conducting a vendetta to drive the dental college out of existence. Most of the dentists in this group had some personal grievance against the college


because they had failed to receive appointments or promotions on the faculty or had run afoul of the college because of allegedly unethical practices (including the stealing of college equipment and the unauthorized transfer of dental college patients to their own practice so that higher fees could be charged). Dr. Follett, the panicstricken dean, had attended the Association meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, and had finally prevailed on the Executive Committee not to suspend the school. He also obtained an extension of the deadline for providing dissections to February 1, 1899. It was pointed out at the Association by dentists friendly to the Boston Dental College that a number of such schools still had no provision for dissecting and had not yet been called to task, and that many members "had always considered the Boston Dental College one of the best."

Events moved rapidly during December 1898 and the following few weeks. A committee of the dental college Trustees conferred with members of a Tufts Trustee committee as to the possibility of a union with Tufts, subject to the approval of the state legislature. Although the dental college committee had been empowered to confer with the officers of colleges or universities other than Tufts, the terms and conditions worked out with Tufts seemed so favorable that they did not consider it advisable to open negotiations with any other institution. Tufts appeared to be the logical choice in other ways, for connections had already been established with it, and Harvard was ruled out because it already had its own medical-dental arrangements.

Many questions had to be settled and multifarious details had to be worked out. As finally agreed, the dental college was to turn over its total assets to Tufts, including more than $30,000 in cash (the bulk of which was the building fund), plus all property and equipment. One dentist was to be elected to the Tufts Trustees, such person in the first instance to be a graduate of the Boston Dental College. A Board of Visitors for the new dental school was to be established, its members to be selected from graduates of the old dental college so far as was compatible with the Trustee by-laws. The Tufts Trustees also undertook "to provide as soon as possible a suitable building to be used in whole or in part by the Dental School." The problem of the name and status of the dental college under the consolidation provoked a certain amount of


questioning and even of controversy. The dental college Trustee committee had, in consultation with the Tufts Trustees, recommended that "such a dental school or department shall be known as the 'Tufts College Dental School (formerly Boston Dental College).' " Some of the dental Trustees had questions, and asked what precedents existed for such action. A copy of the legislative act consolidating the New England Female Medical College with Boston University was read as an example. One Trustee objected to the wording and wanted the name of the department changed to "Boston Dental College, Department of Dentistry, Tufts College." The Tufts Trustees rejected this rather awkward wording and pointed out that inasmuch as the dental college was in fact becoming a department of Tufts College, the same system of designation that applied to other professional departments had to be adhered to. It was made clear that the dental school was to stand upon the same general footing as the medical school. So it remained the "Tufts College Dental School," as originally agreed, although the explanatory parenthetical reference, "Formerly Boston Dental College," was authorized for use for three years in the charter amendment approved by the state legislature on February 28, 1899. Consolidation was to be effected by July 1, 1899, so a committee of the Tufts Trustees undertook to work out the details in cooperation with the Trustees of the old dental college, who agreed to continue to meet until formal transfer of all students and properties had been accomplished.

The Tufts Dental School faculty was formally established on June 21, 1899, with a close working relationship provided with the medical school. Harold Williams, already dean of the medical school, was also appointed dean of the new dental school as well as Professor of Theory and Practice of Medicine in the school. Six other professorships were established, for three-year terms, four of the professors likewise to be members of the medical school faculty. The nuclei of the new faculty were Edward W. Branigan, Clinical Dentistry; George A. Bates, Histology and Microscopy; Frederick W. Hemenway, Dental Art and Mechanism (changed in 1900 to Prosthodontia); John C. Monroe, Surgery; Charles P. Thayer, Anatomy; and Timothy Leary, Bacteriology. Salaries of the dean and the faculty were not to "exceed the amount heretofore paid by the Dental School [College] for the same service." An


administrative committee was created in 1902 like the one in the medical school and consisted of the president of the College, the dean of the two schools, the secretary of the medical faculty, and two members of the dental school faculty. The Trustees of the old dental college held their last meeting on October 1, 1902, and reported that the transfer of the assets of the institution to Tufts ($42,950 in cash, as well as fixtures and other equipment used by the Boston Dental College) had been completed.

The acquisition of the dental college meant for Tufts even more than increased material and human assets in the way of a coeducational student body of 160, a dental infirmary in which some 24,000 cases were being handled annually, and a total instructional staff of 35. The College also acquired an institution that in its thirty-year history had established its own reputation and had produced 469 graduates. As President Capen informed the Trustees in his annual report in the fall of 1899, it was not only the matter of the anatomy requirement that had brought another family under the Tufts roof. The decision to consolidate represented a recognition of broader developments in dental education that were making traditional ideas obsolete and existing arrangements old-fashioned and inadequate. Curricular requirements unheard of not many decades before had become the order of the day. The College had undertaken new educational responsibilities and had reached another milestone in its history. The next few decades were devoted to developing and strengthening the two professional schools and to solving the innumerable problems - academic, technical, and financial - that the new relationships brought in their train.


[23] The summary that follows was derived largely from William J. Gies, "The School of Dentistry," in Raymond A. Kent, Higher Education in America (Boston: Ginn, 1930), Chapter 5. The same author, editor for many years of the Journal of Dental Research, was in charge of the study undertaken by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, published as Dental Education in the United States and Canada, Bulletin No. 19 (1926). Part I (pp. 23-55) sketches in the historical background.

[24] There were still fourteen proprietary dental schools in the United States in 1921, and the last one (the Cincinnati College of Dental Surgery) did not close until 1929.

[25] The dental department at Harvard was created in 1867. Harvard was the first important institution to give dentistry academic rank. Two courses of four months each were considered adequate to round out previous practical training and experience, of which three years were required.

[26] Unless otherwise indicated, all information about the Boston Dental College was derived from an incomplete set of school catalogues and the similarly incomplete set of minutes of the college's Trustees. The story has had to be pieced together from existing records.

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
This object is in collection Subject Temporal Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
DCA Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights