March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate women who have made significant contributions to society but often go unrecognized. One such figure is Lucy Hobbs Taylor, who 150 years ago last month became the first American woman to graduate from dental school.
Studying Dentistry in Secret
Lucy Hobbs Taylor was born March 14, 1833, and was raised in upstate New York. Though she longed to be a doctor, and studied medical science independently, women were not admitted at most medical colleges.
After graduating from high school, Hobbs Taylor took up one of the few positions readily available to women at the time: school teacher. But she remained dedicated to her dream.
Hobbs Taylor eventually found a professor at a Cincinnati medical school who was willing to teach her privately. He recognized her talent and determination, and steered her toward dentistry, a profession in which he believed the presence of a female doctor would be met with less hostility. Hobbs Taylor further pursued private studies at the Ohio College of Dental Surgery, but despite her knowledge and — following an apprenticeship — her hands-on experience, she was still denied official admission to and a degree from the school.
Lucy Hobbs Taylor, DDS
In 1861, at the age of 28, Hobbs Taylor opened her own dental practice, first in Cincinnati and then in several small towns in Iowa, still lacking a diploma (a relatively common practice at the time) but confident in her abilities. With the support of male peers, she was elected in 1865 to the Iowa State Dental Society, which was the first professional dental organization in the United States to accept women. The group then selected Hobbs Taylor as a delegate to the American Dental Association convention.
After this series of professional honors and years of experience, Hobbs Taylor was finally granted admission to the Ohio College of Dental Surgery, one of the first dedicated dental schools in the country. In February 1866, she became the first American woman to earn a doctor of dental surgery (DDS) degree.
She went on to practice general dentistry, with a focus on family dental care. Even in the mid- to late-1800s, general and restorative dentistry included some treatments still in use today, though they have evolved significantly in terms of safety and comfort:
In addition to her noteworthiness as the first American woman to earn a DDS degree, Hobbs Taylor gained attention for her gentle chairside manner. “Even now we almost imagine ourselves seated in what is usually termed the ‘chair of torture’ – dreaded now no more – by our side a beautiful lady … eyes, so tender in their gaze – they take away all dread, and in their sympathy even divide the pain itself,” opined a Cincinnati Dental Reporter editorial of the era.
Hobbs Taylor later became active in the women’s suffrage movement, and she continued to practice dentistry until her death in 1910 at the age of 77.
Women in Dentistry Today
The number of women who followed Hobbs Taylor’s path grew slowly over the course of the 20th century and the start of the 21st.
According to a recent American Dental Association article about women in dentistry, only 1.1 percent of dental students in 1968 were women. A decade later, that number had jumped to nearly 16 percent.
In 2014, 47.7 percent of dental students were female. While obstacles remain in both the field of dentistry and society in general, positive strides have been made thanks in part to trailblazers like Lucy Hobbs Taylor.