Oral History

Oral History

E meline Roberts Jones didn’t intend to become the first American woman to practice dentistry. Such an idea would have been preposterous in 1854. But her marriage that year to Daniel Albion Jones at the age of 17 or 18—accounts differ—changed the course of her life.

Daniel Jones was a dentist in Danielson, Connecticut, at a time when dentistry was just becoming a trained profession. The world’s first dental school, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, was founded in 1840, and the following year Alabama passed the first laws regulating dentistry in the United States, though “the act was never enforced,” according to the American Dental Association. A degree wouldn’t be required for practice until 1915. Despite the profession’s lack of regulation, one thing was certain: Dentists were men.

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The 4th Annual Women's Leadership Conference at the University of New Haven

Nevertheless, Emeline was intrigued by her husband’s work. An article in the Windham County Transcript, which was located in northeastern Connecticut, tells the story:

After her marriage in 1854 she… developed a strong desire to assist him in his practice. She went about accomplishing her desire very quietly, watching her husband work and filling extracted teeth which he had saved as unusual specimens until she had filled a two quart jar with them. She then showed him what she had done and after that it was an easy matter to convince him that she would be a valuable assistant.

According to the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, within four years of working together, and despite Daniel’s original belief that women’s “frail and clumsy fingers” made them unsuitable to practice dentistry, he and Emeline were not just spouses but business partners.

Hailed as “a dentist of exceptional skill… widely known and beloved outside his profession, especially as a philanthropist” by the Commemorative Biographical Record, New Haven County of 1902, Daniel died in 1864, just ten years into their marriage. Emeline was left with two small children to raise on her own, but fortunately, by then, she had a profession. “[S]he bravely carried on alone in order to support her family, traveling with her portable dentist’s chair to eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island,” the Hall of Fame writes. In 1876 she settled in New Haven, opened her own office at 746 Chapel Street and practiced dentistry for nearly 40 more years. Today, 746 Chapel—an 1832 brick building on the southwest corner at State Street—houses, most noticeably, a Subway sandwich shop.

No record persists of Emeline Jones’s particular practices, but the late 19th century was a pivotal time in the history of dentistry. According to The Excruciating History of Dentistry (1998) by James Wynbrandt, ether and chloroform were new anesthetics. Nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas,” had been introduced into dental procedures by Hartford dentist Horace Wells in 1844, then abandoned after an unsuccessful demonstration of its properties ruined his career, only to be reintroduced 20 years later. Cocaine was used as an injected anesthetic beginning in 1884. Novocain arrived on the scene in 1905, when Emeline was still in practice.

Other key developments in dentistry occurred during her lifetime. According to Wynbrandt, dentures made of vulcanite became common after 1881, the “chemicobacterial cause” of tooth decay was discovered by an American dentist in Berlin in 1890 and the discovery of X-rays in 1895 would change the practice of dentistry forever. The first commercial X-ray unit intended for dental use was installed in 1913.

Emeline’s 1902 biography in the Commemorative Biographical Record says, “As the pioneer woman in her profession she enjoys a distinction not lightly reckoned in these days, when women are receiving the recognition due them for their achievements.” The biography goes on to note that other women may have practiced dentistry before her, but “so far as known she is the first to open an office on her own account.” In keeping with the times, Emeline is praised as well for being “the best of mothers and the most serviceable of friends.”

In fact, her maternal influence led her son, named for his father, into dental practice as well. He studied first under Emeline, then went on to earn a DDS from the Harvard Dental School and an MD from Yale Medical School, after which he returned to practice with his mother. Emeline’s daughter took a more traditional route, studying music, marrying and raising two daughters.

Emeline was recognized for her accomplishments with election to the Connecticut State Dental Society in 1883, and a decade later she became the 18th dentist to be licensed in Connecticut, according to the Sindecuse Museum at the University of Michigan. She was made an honorary member of the National Dental Association in 1914, two years before her death at the age of 80.

It hasn’t been easy to follow in Emeline’s footsteps. Even at the end of the 20th century, only 13.5% of dentists nationwide were women. But today, the figure stands asymptotically higher at 31%, according to the American Dental Association, which also reports that in 2015, women made up 48.8% of first-year dental students.

The cavity, it seems, is finally being filled.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image depicts a page from the 1902 Commemorative Biographical Record, New Haven County.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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