Friday, April 15, 2011

G. V. Black, the Father of Modern Dentistry

G. V. Black's monument by Frederick C. Hibbard (JWB, 2011)

Walk the length of Chicago’s stately Astor Street, and your jaw just drops, which is appropriate because staring down at you at the end of Astor is the likeness of Greene Vardiman Black, who is seated imperiously on the other side of North Avenue.

You, with your jaw hanging open, are looking at the “Father of Modern Dentistry.”

He was born on a farm near Winchester, Illinois on August 3, 1836 and had less than 20 months of formal schooling.   At the age of 17 he was apprenticed to his brother, Dr. Thomas G. Black, who had a medical degree.  In the space of six months he learned from Thomas and Dr. J. C. Speer all that there was to know about the primitive practice of dentistry.

JWB, 2011
After the Civil War, in which he served briefly as a Union scout, he settled in Jacksonville, Illinois, and it is there that he went about the business of making dentistry something more than the human equivalent of being re-shod at a blacksmith’s.

My father told the story of his mother, who was born in 1868, walking to the dentist when she was in her fifties and without any anesthetic having all of her upper teeth pulled in a single visit, then walking home again.  I have no reason to believe he was making the story up. She lived in a small country village in upstate New York, and the most commonly used dental implement at the time was a pair of pliers.

G. V. Black changed all that.  Most importantly, Black changed the focus of dentistry from repairing broken and decayed teeth to preventing the breakdown of teeth in the first place.

JWB, 2011
His research and careful study led to astounding strides in the science of dentistry.  He invented a dental drill that was powered by a foot pedal; finally, cavities could be filled, rather than the tooth removed.  He created a silver amalgam for fillings with just the right chemical balance.  Instead of cashing in on the amalgam, he charged a fee for teaching manufacturers how to use the product and then left it up to them to market and sell it. [The New York Times, April 15, 2008]

He created over one hundred cutting instruments for the dentist’s office.  His Operative Dentistry text was published in two volumes in 1908 with a third published in 1915, the year he died and is still a valued reference today.  His classification of the various types of decay, “Black’s Classification of Caries Lesions,” is still used as well.

Most importantly, he put forth the use of nitrous oxide as a way to extract teeth without pain.  For that alone, someone should be placing flowers on Black’s statue every single day.

Frderick C. Hibbard's "Garden Girl"
(JWB, 2011)
His work led to well-deserved recognition.  For 15 years he served as Professor of Oral Pathology at the Missouri Dental College.  Moving to Chicago in the early 1890’s, he became a Professor of Pathology at the Chicago College of Dental Surgery, which later became the Loyola University School of Dentistry.  He received a medical degree from the Chicago Medical School and in 1891 moved to the Northwestern University Dental School, where he became Dean in 1897.

The creator of the Black monument is Frederick C. Hibbard, who was born in 1881 in Missouri.  Beginning his career as an electrical engineer, he traveled to Chicago and in 1901 began study at the Art Institute of Chicago under Lorado Taft, establishing a studio in Chicago in 1904. []  Hibbard is most noted for his series of sculptures related to the Civil War.  However, if you walked north from the Black sculpture to the Lincoln Park Conservatory, his lovely Garden Girl will greet you at the pool just inside the front entrance.


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