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Early Dayton Dentists Made Big Contributions

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on July 4, 1976
Early Dayton dentists made big contributions to the profession
By Carl V. Roberts
            “Shaves—Haircuts—Teeth Pulled.”
            That is a sign one might have seen in Dayton in 1776, if there had been a Dayton in 1776.
            Barbers, who had brought their tools and traditions from Europe, had just about given up the practice of dentistry.  But, in the more populous communities, they continued to operate in the void provided by the non-existence of any kind of formal dentistry training.  Out in the boondocks it was the blacksmith or anyone with a pair of pliers and strong hands.
            IT PROBABLY WAS make-do in this area, too, for awhile after Dayton was settled in 1796, but help was at hand.  The town was only a year old when the first doctor settled in what is now Montgomery County.  As the only medical man around, it is likely that he handled dental emergencies as well as doctoring everyone for miles around.
            It would be like that for a long time for Dr. John Hole and others who joined him.  Our first trained dentist did not arrive until 1831.  What was a trained dentist in the early days?  What brought the change to dentistry as we know it today?
            “The Ohio Story” occupies the space between the two questions and that story and the before and after stories are readily available because the dental profession has been blessed with such researchers as the late Dr. O. B. Kneisly, Dayton Dental Society historian in the 1950s , and Dr. Earl J. Spencer, who at 81 continues to add to the record.
            DESPITE EARLIER attempts, revival of the dental science of antiquity took more than 2,000 years.
            A German doctor tried with a textbook in 1530.
            In 1580 the University of France opened its medical school to would-be dentists, but with no courses in dentistry, as such.
            In 1728 another textbook was published – 900 pages of such precise information that it is considered the foundation of modern dental science.  It was written by Pierre Fouchard, who had quit dentistry in disgust at its crude state to spend years in the research that produced the book.  The Frenchman followed his book with a campaign for special education, examinations and a set of regulations.
            ALL THIS, MIND YOU, was in plenty of time to have saved George Washington from his set of wooden choppers.  But, it was to be another century before anyone listened to Fouchard and acted – here in American not much more than half way to its first Centennial observance.
            Meanwhile, how had we been getting the trained dentists who started converting barbers to specialists in barbering?  The same way we got our doctors.
            In those early years, interested young men served apprenticeships with practicing dentists, then went out to practice in some needy community.  Some became traveling dentists.
            A Town was fortunate if its dentist’s preceptor had had medical experience before going into dentistry and doubly blessed if its new dentists had had some medical training first.
            FOR 25 YEARS,  Dayton residents, like most everyone west of the Alleghenies, had to wait for an advertisement like this in their local newspapers:
“           Dr. So-an-So respectfully informs the Ladies and Gentlemen of this City that he will remain five or six days to remedy diseases of the mouth and to extract teeth and replace them with artificial ones.”
Many of the ads offered, “All Operations of the Dentist’s Art,” some in gaudy language.  They often advised that, “Dr. So-and-So is recently arrived from London,” or Paris or Vienna, or some other European city.
            The Dayton area had gotten its first doctor in 1797 and its first college trained one in 1812.  Finally, in 1831, a dentist hung out his shingle here.
            HISTORIANS DO NOT pin it down, but indications are that we were doubly blessed, to judge by his newspaper announcements:
            “Dr. A. Knisley tenders his services to the Ladies and Gentlemen of Dayton in the several branches of Dental Surgery.
            “He proposes to insert natural or artificial teeth with such permanency and so naturally as to escape detection.  Cure all cases of scurvy of the teeth, preserve those which are decaying, extract decayed teeth and remaining roots with care and safety.
            “The benefits of filling teeth are so truly important, it is impossible to recommend it too highly; but it is generally delayed so long that decay cannot be effectively stopped before the nerve is exposed.  It treated in time, the teeth can be preserved a long time.”
            DR. KNISLEY’S ADS were frequent and in accord with the ethics of the day.  Some consisted of signed statements by Patients and medical doctors attesting to the superior quality of his “Assortment of Porcelain Teeth.”
            Dr. O. B. Kneisly, who found that he and Dr. A. (Abraham) Knisley were from differently spelled branches of the same family tree, reported that our first dentist died in 1848, when only 42.
            The second dentist, Dr. G. A. Freydinger, came in 1833, but it took eight more years to get a third.  Dr. Spencer found that by 1850, Dayton proper had one dentist for each 1,000 of its nearly 8,000 residents – eight times the national average.  The proportion was high count-wide, too – four times the national average, with 13 dentists for 25,000 residents.
            BY 1876, THE TOTALS were up 50 per cent.  Now there are more than 300 in the metropolitan area.
            One of Dayton’s early dentists was tied to what the profession considers its most important event.  On May 10, 1842, an announcement in the local newspapers said:
            “J. Jones would respectfully acquaint the citizens of Dayton and vicinity that he has located permanently in the city. . .”
            The notice continued in the vein of Dr. Knisley’s 11 years earlier but ended with:  “Satisfactory reference will be given.”
            One of these would have been from Dr. John Harris  of Bainbridge, Ohio, under whom Dr. Jones had studied.  That brings us to “The Ohio Story” – for Dr. Harris was not the typical preceptor.
            IN 1819, AT THE age of 21, he had moved from Pompey, N.Y., to Cincinnati to practice medicine and surgery.  He was sufficiently wedded to his profession to accept an appointment in 1821 as a surgeon in the Ohio militia.  Something stirred his interest in dentistry – perhaps conditions similar, except for degree, to those which turned Fouchard in that direction.  In 1825, he moved to Bainbridge and added dentistry to his medical-surgical practice.
            There, late in 1828, exactly 100 years after the Frenchman had pleaded for special training for dentists, Dr. Harris answered the plea.  He announced the addition of such training to the curriculum of the pre-medical school he had opened three months earlier.
            WHAT FOLLOWED indicates that the Fouchard-Harris philosophy must have been emphasized to Bainbridge students.  One, Dr. Chapin A. Harris, a brother of the founder, established the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in 1840 – the world’s first graduate-level school.  Another, Dr. James Taylor, opened the second in 1845 – the Ohio College of Dental Surgery in Cincinnati.
            Dr. John Jones, Dayton’s first Bainbridge graduate, must have absorbed a lot of the philosophy.  Despite a successful practice here, he enrolled in the Ohio college and was a member of the first graduating class in 1846.
            Dr. B. A. Satterthwait of Lima did the same thing.  He returned to Lima after his graduation in 1846, but moved here in 1947.
            DRS. SATTERTHWAIT and Jones and Dr. W. A. Pease, who also came here in 1847, were among the early advocates of professional standards.  Dr. Pease used his flair for words.  He wrote frequently for national and sectional journals and circulated a letter in this area called, “Thoughts for Dentists.”
            The internal push for higher professional standards and a code of ethics gained impetus with the formation of a dental society in New York in 1834.  Other local and regional groups followed and the American Society of Dental Surgeons was born in 1840.
            The region society which covered this area, one of several that preceded formation of the Dayton Dental society in 1922, beat the national group to the punch in 1846.  It banned the use of “secret nostrums’ and the practice of “members of the professional extolling, through the public prints or otherwise, their own supposed excellencies.”
            DAYTON ALSO CONTRIUTED to the technical improvement of the profession through its inventor-dentist – Dr. L. E. Custer.
            His experience included a job with a jeweler, working in his father’s dental office and playing cornet in a river boat band before graduation from Otterbein University and the Ohio Dental College.  He started practice in Springfield in 1887, when he was 24, then came here the next year.
            He gained fame as a balloonist and an electrical gadgeteer. He wired a dental chair in what someone described as ‘a shocking manner,’ but he also turned out a dozen useful inventions.  His electric dental furnace increased the use of porcelain for fillings by speeding up the fusion process.  An electric annealer improved the quality of gold fillings and a carbon arc lamp made platinum fillings practical.
            THUS, NOT ONLY Ohio, but Dayton specifically, made pioneer contributions to bring into being today’s 59 colleges that have improved the art.  Ohio has two schools, at Ohio State and Case Western Reserve universities.
            Most schools require the equivalent of three years of college study before a four-year dentistry course.  Ohio State also has a combination seven-year course which results in both bachelor of arts and doctor of dental surgery degrees.