Tribute to Black History Month


What could be more relevant to Black History month than a famous Black Dentist? And what could be more relevant  to dentists than golf. Enter George Franklin Grant, the Harvard trained African American  dentist who invented the modern wooden golf tee.  Previously, there had been other objects and methods for teeing up a golf ball, but it took Grant to patent the forerunner of the modern golf tee.

Born in Oswego, New York in 1847, he entered Harvard’s School of Dental Medicine in 1868 and graduated in 1870. He was one of the first two graduates of Harvard University’s dental program .He later became Harvard’s first African American professor . He was a dedicated dentist, and patented a prosthetic device for cleft palate that was internationally recognized. He  was also  involved in dental organizations, as a founding member  Harvard’s Odontological Society, and as president of the Harvard Dental Alumni Association.

We don’t really know if Grant was an avid golfer.  Golf was not nearly as popular, or egalitarian back at the turn of the last century.  But then Grant was not one to be held back Grant’s patent,  issued on December 12, 1899 for an improved golf tee was a vast improvement over the mounds of sand previously used.  If you have ever hit a ball in sand , you know how messy that can be, not mention if the wind is kicking up.  So we offer our gratitude and humbly honor the man who helped modernize golf.  I just wonder  though, were golfers better at getting out of sand traps prior to his invention?

Art and the anti-Nazi Dentist

Sculpture by Otto Freundlich on the cover of "Entartete Kunst."

Sculpture by Otto Freundlich on the cover of “Entartete Kunst.”

Many dentists are creative and have an artistic inclination. Some become so successful, they leave the field of dentistry to pursue their artistic talents. Some give their lives for their craft.  One such tragic case is of Otto Freundlich.  Born in Germany in 1878, Freundlich studied dentistry only to  head off to pursue art in Paris in 1908. Later, one of his most famous works, a sculpture called “Der Neue Mensch” (“The New Man”) was used on the cover of the Nazi exhibition program called “Entartete Kunst”- “Degenerate Art.” The exhibition which ran from July to November in 1937 was intended to ridicule and denigrate modern artists, and particularly Jewish artists. The exhibition became heavily attended much to the dismay of the Nazis, who hoped the populace would embrace the Great German Art Exhibition instead. But the German people liked the modern art art more than the boring traditional German art. Hitler was outraged.  Freundlich was eventually arrested by the Nazi’s and murdered in Majdanek Concentration Camp in 1943.

Forensic Dentistry and the Identification of Dr. Josef Mengele

Perhaps the most notorious figure of the Nazi concentration camps during WWII was Dr. Josef Mengele. Accused of experimenting on young twins (one would serve as the control for his experiments), he experimented, mutilated, murdered and dissected countless victims in Auschwitz, almost all without anesthesia. He was also responsible for the selection process when the Jewish refugees unloaded on the train platform at Auschwitz upon their arrival from all over Europe. His wave of the arm could mean life or death in the selection process. He was also a member of the team of doctors responsible for supervising the administration of Zyklon B, the gas that was used to kill people in the gas chambers at Auschwitz- Birkenau. He was sadistic and unempathetic. He became one of the most sought after war criminals after he was able to escape to South America when WWII ended. He changed his name and residences frequently, but was tracked by Nazi hunters.  He was known to be buried under the name “Wolfgang Gerhard” by his host family, the Bosserts in Sao Paulo, after a drowning incident. With the aid of dental records, Mengele’s death  was finally corroborated in 1985 by the efforts of Stephen Daschi, US Consul in Brazil.

This part of the story is little known. Daschi discovered Mengele, then using the pseudonym Pedro Hochbichler,  had visited Dr. Hercy Gonzaga Gama Angelo in the suburb of Sao Paulo, Brazil for a root canal in 1978. Dr. Angelo provided Daschi with the name of the referring dentist, Dr. Kasumasa Tutiya, who provided dental radiographs (X-rays).  The body of Mengele had been found previously though extensive tracking, and was then corroborated with the eye witnesses to the man and his teeth by the dentist!

Anne Frank and her dentist Dr. Pfeffer

When Anne Frank moved into hiding in Amsterdam (Prinsengracht 263), other Jews later joined them hiding. One such person was the dentist, Fritz Pfeffer, who was given the pseudonym Mr. Dussel (Dussel in German means “nitwit”) by Anne Frank in her diary. Dr. Pfeffer had fled Germany in 1938 and moved to Amsterdam where he set up his dental practice, but with the invasion of Holland and the persecution of the Jews, found himself in need of hiding. One of his Fritz’s brothers (Hans) escaped to New Jersey, and one to South America, but the rest of his family perished. Otto Frank and Miep Gies helped hide Fritz along with the increasing number of people in the crowded  secret annex. Dr. Pfeffer arrived with his dental equipment, including the pedal driven SS White drill, and became the roommate of Anne Frank. Dr. Pfeffer purportedly had to do a root canal treatment on Anne’s front tooth. Without anesthesia, Anne was not endeared to the man or his profession.

Unfortunately, someone betrayed the hiding place to the authorties, and the Dr. Pfeffer along with the Anne and the rest of the people hiding in the annex were arrested and sent to concentration camps. After a stint in Auschwitz, Anne and her sister Margo ended up in Bergen-Belsen, only to die shortly before the camp’s liberation. Dr. Fritz ultimately died in Neuengamme concentration camp from illness on December 20th, 1944.

Fritz Pfeffer_Dentist_AnneFrank House

The Kiss



The world famous photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt took this picture of a soldier kissing a nurse on V-Day, August 14th, 1945. The soldier, believed to be George Mendonca of Newport, Rhode Island, was in Times Square celebrating. He happened to kiss a nurse which was capture by Eisenstaedt. As it turns out, the nurse is believed to be Greta Friedman, a dental assistant. Back in 1945 and for some time after, dental assistants customarily wore white and looked like medical nurses!


American Gothic

Having had dinner at One if By Land on Barrow Street in New York was a visual as well as gustatory treat. The ambience was magnificent. Over the bar was a copy of the Grant Wood painting, “The Ride of Paul Revere.” It reminded me of the more famous Grant Wood Painting, “American Gothic,” you know the one of the man in overalls with pitchfork and his dour wife by his side. What most dentists may recall, and what most of the public seems unaware, is that the models for Woods painting were Wood’s dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby (1867–1950)  from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and  the artist’s sister, Nan.Man and woman with stern expession stand side-by-side. The man holds a pitch fork.

Happy Birthday to a hero of WWII

On March 21, 1889 Bernard Cyril Freyberg was born.  He would later become Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg, and would earn numerous awards in World War I and  II , including the Victoria Cross, the Croix de Geurre (France), the Legion of Merit (United States), and the Cross of Valour (Greece), to name but a few.  Bernard Freyberg went on to become the Governor General of New Zealand after World War II.  What is most amazing to me about this man is that he started his career in 1911 as a DENTIST in New Zealand, a career cut short by war. I think no one would dispute Bernard Freyberg  had a more brilliant military career. Nonetheless, Happy Belated Birthday to the dentist who went on to help save the world and govern a nation!

Early Dentistry…Really Early!


Some time an estimated 7,500 to 9,000 years ago, early man is suspected of using flint tips to drill into the enamel of teeth.  Several skulls were found in Pakistan  which appear to have molars drilled with flints, as reported in Nature in 2006.  More recently though, a 6,500 year old tooth has been found in Slovenia  with what is now regarded as the earliest (to date) dental filling material: beeswax.  The early Neolithic inhabitants where the tooth was found engaged in farming, and used bees and wax.  Many times primitive remedies find modern uses.  Modern dentists use beeswax too, but not as a filling material!

Guns, Gas and Gums

Samuel Colt, famous inventor of the Colt pistol, needed money to promote his new invention.  So he took to the road in the mid 1830’s as “the celebrated Dr. Coult of New York, London and Calcutta” and performed nitrous oxide (laughing gas) demonstrations.  He was apparently very convincing and very successful.  Whether he immediately influenced any dentists is not known, but what is known is after that laughing gas and dentists became like peanut butter and jelly: a great pairing.  Laughing gas has a very mild anesthetic effect at very big levels, more noticeably on the gums.  Since Colt used the money he made from his laughing gas demonstrations to promote his gun business, it was left to Horace Wells in 1844  to show how laughing gas could be in dentistry.  From guns to gas, and gas to gums

Rosie the Riveter

Norman Rockwell created the image 70 years ago when American women joined the ranks of employment during World War II.  Rockwell based his image of Rosie the Riveter on May Doyle, a nineteen year old who worked in a dental office in Arlington, Massachusetts. She worked as a phone operator in the office and probably never held a riveter (and hopefully not a dental drill either).