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SW Nebraska Dental Center

Black History Month and Dentistry

February 22, 2022
Posted By: Kaitlin Haag

Black History Month and Dentistry


Vada Somerville was a civil rights activist and the second African American woman to receive a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree in California. After attending the University of Southern California, Vada married a Dentist she’d met in school. After the United States entered World War I, Vada decided to become a Doctor of Dental Surgery because she was worried that if her husband was drafted, he would lose his patients. When she entered dental school, she was the only woman and only African American in her class. Upon graduating, she was the first African American woman to be licensed to practice dentistry in California! 


Jeanne Sinkford grew up in Washington DC and began studying at Howard University when she was 16! She then attended dental school and ultimately became the first female dean of a US dental school. In 2015, Sinkford received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Dental Association, and is still a dean and professor emeritus at Howard University.


Ida Gray Nelson was the first African-American woman to become a dentist in the United States. She became interested in dentistry through working for Jonathan Taft, an early advocate of women in dentistry.  After working her way through high school as a seamstress, she enrolled in the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. She then opened a practice that served both black and white patients from 1890-1928. She was known for her gentleness with children and remains an inspirational figure!


William Thomas Jefferson was born in 1864 in Washington DC. Dr. Jefferson began studying dentistry at the age of 22 and served in the military as a lieutenant. He oversaw the dental health of his fellow soldiers while serving his country. He continued his service to the country while serving in the National Guard while building his dental practice in Chicago, IL.

Robert T. Freeman was born in 1846 near Washington D.C. Before arriving in Washington D.C. his father purchased their freedom from his owner in North Carolina. He began working for his mentor, a white dentist named Dr. Noble and became his dental assistant. His acceptance into Harvard at the age of 22 was groundbreaking for black students. He was the first black student to graduate with a Doctorate in Dental Surgery from the university’s dental school. He then returned to Washington D.C. and practiced dentistry in the same building as his mentor, Dr. Noble.

George F. Grant was also born to enslaved parents in 1846. After graduating from Harvard University he accepted a teaching position with the university making him the first African American professor at the school. Dr. Grant also invented a golf tee!

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