Dental School

One of the country’s oldest dental schools opened in the mid-1800s, when dentistry was in sore need of professionalization

By Greg Watry

Blacksmiths—along with barbers and ivory carvers—used to serve as dentists. (Wellcome Library, London)

When the New York College of Dentistry, the third oldest continuously running dental school in the United States, held its first session in 1866, the modern dental field was in its nascent stages. Physicians weren’t the only ones probing the mouths of New Yorkers. Barbers, ivory carvers and even umbrella makers were trying their hands at the practice.

“It was a dreadful experience to go to a dentist,” said Andrew Spielman, of New York University’s College of Dentistry, which resulted from a 1925 merger between NYU and the New York College of Dentistry. There were no standards, he said. No higher education was required, and some dentists-in-training were as young as 16. It wasn’t until 1900 that the New York State Board of Regents required students to be 21 years of age to practice dentistry in the state. Of the 5,606 dentists practicing in 1860, about 10 percent received formal dental education.

Dental surgeon extracting a tooth. (Wellcome Library, London)

When it opened, the New York College of Dentistry comprised only two rented rooms at a building located at 161 Fifth Avenue, near 22 Street. Tuition for the 31 inaugural students was $150 per year, and there were only six other dental schools in the country at the time of its opening, according to NYU.

Norman William Kingsley, known today as the “Father of Orthodontics,” served as the college’s first dean. Kingsley, who had been practicing dentistry since 1850, had made a name for himself in the field, having won gold medals at two world’s fairs for his fabrication of gold and porcelain dentures, according to a 2012 article published in The Journal of the American Dental Association.

Kingsley’s tenure as dean lasted only until 1869, and it was an unceremonious parting between the school and administrator. According to Spielman, Kingsley reported to the New York State Board of Regents that the school was flippant when awarding honorary degrees. That year the college shut down for six months as it settled a lawsuit regarding its standards of education. Kingsley’s colleagues pushed him out as a result, Spielman said. However, he didn’t stop working, focusing his later efforts on orthodontics and cleft palate therapy.

Meanwhile, the New York College of Dentistry lived a mobile existence, moving between various buildings within the vicinity of its first location. In 1891, it moved to 23 Street, where the School of Visual Arts now stands. In 1910, the Flexner Report was published, “which gave formal voice to a rising backlash against the proliferation of proprietary medical and dental schools,” according to NYU. As a result, the state required dental schools to be affiliated with a university. The college attempted mergers with both Columbia and Cornell, but was finally successful with NYU in 1925.

In 1957, New York University’s College of Dentistry moved to 421 First Avenue, where it remains today. When the institution celebrated its 150 anniversary in 2015, over 22,000 people had graduated from it.

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