4 Notable African-Americans in Dentistry

HealthcareFebruary 01, 2023

From left, Robert Tanner Freeman, Ida Gray Nelson Rollins, George Franklin Grant, and Annie E. "Bessie" Delany

Dentistry is one of the oldest medical professions, dating all the way back to the Bronze Age of 7000 BC, but formal training in the US wasn’t created until the 1800s. The first dental college was founded in 1840, and the first university-affiliated dental school, Harvard University Dental School, was founded in 1867. 

What may surprise you is that Harvard graduated the first Black dentist in 1869 from its first class. Here are four remarkable trailblazers in dentistry that we’re honoring for Black History Month. 

Robert T. Freeman is credited for being the first credentialed Black dentist in America, graduating from Harvard in 1869 (mentioned above) as part of its inaugural dental class of just 16 students. He was 23 years old when he graduated and the son of former slaves. He had developed an interest in dentistry from his white mentor, Dr. Henry Bliss Noble, who encouraged him to apply to Harvard’s dental school. Although Harvard initially rejected him due to the color of his skin, he was accepted after petition. After Freeman graduated, he returned to his home city of Washington DC, to open a private practice. Sadly, he died just four years later, likely from cholera. Despite his short career, he is recognized for his accomplishment of graduating from Harvard as the first formally trained Black dentist. 

Ida Nelson Rollins is renowned for being the first Black woman dentist in the US, an especially noteworthy achievement for its time. She graduated from the University of Michigan College of Dentistry in 1890, where she received a Doctorate of Dental Surgery. She was one of just three women in the class, but she didn’t let that distinction get in her way. After graduating, she launched the first Black female-owned dental practice in the US—in Cincinnati—and then later opened a practice in Chicago when she moved there with her husband.

George Franklin Grant graduated from Harvard on the heels of his classmate Robert Freeman just one year later in 1870. Similar to Freeman, he had long been interested in dentistry and had apprenticed as a dental assistant prior to enrolling at Harvard. After he graduated, Harvard hired him back as a researcher to work on issues such as cleft palates. He went on to open his own practice, but is credited for being the first Black faculty member at Harvard. 

Annie E. “Bessie” Delany was from a slightly later era, but no less of a trailblazer during the period of Jim Crow. Known as Dr. Bessie, she graduated with a doctorate in 1923 from Columbia School of Dental and Oral Surgery, the only Black woman in her class of 170 (11 women). She became the second Black woman in New York to be a licensed dentist. She practiced in Harlem, sharing an office with her dentist brother, and made a point of treating children and low-income patients for free. She became famous in 1991 after being interviewed by a NYT reporter, who helped co-write a book by her and her sister: Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters First 100 Years. 

If these pioneers inspire you to explore careers in dental assisting or hygiene, click here to learn more about Fortis Colleges and Institutes’ program, or call us at (855) 436-7847 to learn more.