Taylor, Lucy Hobbs (1833–1910)
Taylor, Lucy Hobbs (1833–1910)
American who became the first woman with a dental degree in the world. Born Lucy Beaman Hobbs probably in Franklin County, rather than Clinton County, New York, on March 14, 1833; died in Lawrence, Kansas, on October 3, 1910; buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery, Lawrence, Kansas; daughter of Lucy (Beaman) Hobbs and Benjamin Hobbs; attended Franklin Academy, Malone, New York, 1845–49; Ohio College of Dental Surgery, D.D.S., 1866; married James MyrtleTaylor, in Chicago, Illinois, on April 24, 1867 (died December 14, 1886); no children.
member of the Iowa State Dental Society (1865) and the Illinois State Dental Society (1866); first female Noble Grand of Degree, Rebekah Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Lawrence, Kansas; Worthy Matron of the Adah Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, Lawrence, Kansas; president of the Republican Club, Lawrence, Kansas.
Enrolled at the Franklin Academy, Malone, New York (1845); graduated from the Franklin Academy (1849); moved to Cincinnati, Ohio (1859); was refused admission to Eclectic College of Medicine (1859); was refused admission to Ohio College of Dental Surgery (1859 and 1861); opened practice in Cincinnati (1861); opened practice in Bellevue, Iowa (1861); opened practice in McGregor, Iowa (1863); graduated from Ohio College of Dental Surgery (1866); was the first woman to address a state dental association (July 1866); moved to Chicago, Illinois (1866); elected to Illinois State Dental Society (1866); opened practice in Chicago (1866); moved to Lawrence, Kansas (December 1867); opened practice in Lawrence, Kansas (1867); joined Rebekah Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (1871); joined Adah Chapter of Order of the Eastern Star (1875); went into semiretirement (1886); retired (1907).
Lucy Hobbs Taylor's original ambition was to became a medical doctor. For a woman in the mid-1800s, however, educational opportunities in medicine were almost non-existent. By 1830, a license was required to practice medicine in all but three states in America. Thus, medical colleges exercised increasing influence in the exclusion of women from the science. Nevertheless, Taylor demonstrated a strong determination to obtain medical training and enter some branch of the health-care professions.
Lucy Hobbs Taylor was born in a log cabin on March 14, 1833. Her place of birth is variously listed as Franklin or Clinton counties, New York. The seventh of ten children, she was the daughter of Lucy Beaman Hobbs and Benjamin Hobbs, who had moved from New England to New York several years previously. When Taylor was only ten years old, her mother died. Benjamin Hobbs subsequently married his sister-in-law Hannah Beaman , but Hannah too died suddenly shortly after the marriage. As a result, Lucy and her brother Thomas were enrolled at the Franklin Academy, a residential school in Malone, New York. There she received her formal education. Taylor proved a good student and graduated in 1849.
After graduating, Lucy Taylor took a teaching position at the public school in Brooklyn, Michigan, where she taught for ten years. When not teaching, she attended the local debating society, spelling bees, and sang in the choir. In Brooklyn, Taylor met the town physician and persuaded him to give her lessons in physiology and anatomy. At his suggestion, she attempted to enroll at the Eclectic College of Medicine in Cincinnati, Ohio, where it was reported that women were welcome as students. As Caroline Bird noted, the Eclectic College of Medicine was "one of the proprietary medical schools that amounted to diploma mills." Upon her arrival in Cincinnati in 1859, however, Taylor discovered that her application for admission had been denied due to her gender. Even though Elizabeth Blackwell had become the first American woman to receive a medical degree ten years previously, old prejudices still prevailed.
However, Charles A. Cleaveland, professor of materia medica and therapeutics at the Eclectic College of Medicine, agreed to tutor Taylor privately. He had been a salesman of medical equipment before being invited to teach at the college. When the private instruction which Taylor received from Cleaveland brought her no closer to her goal of becoming a doctor, he suggested that she pursue a career in dentistry, a field more accessible to women. Dentists were not required to make house calls, he told her, nor was it necessary to have a license to practice in the state of Ohio.
Contemporaries did not consider dentistry a profession. Instead, dentistry was thought of as a trade. Given the standards of oral hygiene at the time, this is hardly surprising. Writes Bird:
Except in the cities, no one cared very much about the appearance of teeth, and if they rotted, almost anyone could pull them out. Like preachers and photographers, who sometimes pulled teeth on the side, early dentists served sparsely populated rural areas by travelling from town to town, carrying their tools with them. In the case of dentists, these were usually confined to a file, a few excavators, a vial of mercury, and silver coins to make fillings. Many people regarded dentists as little better than the patent medicine men who travelled the same routes.
At the time, Ohio dentists were attempting to organize a college of dentistry, similar to that of their medical colleagues. Schools of dentistry were not yet affiliated with universities and retained an independent status. Once founded, the Ohio College of Dental Surgery refused Taylor's request for admission.
After some persuasion, however, Jonathan Taft, dean of the college, agreed to teach Taylor privately for three months. For her part, Taylor found Taft "an earnest advocate of the right of women to study and pursue his profession." As well, she noted that Taft was a founder of the American Dental Association, and was "probably the most distinguished dentist who … ever practiced in Cincinnati." Having proved herself to Taft, Taylor was accepted as an apprentice to a dentist in private practice, Dr. Samuel Wardle, himself a graduate of the Ohio College of Dental Surgery. She had already approached several other dentists, including Dr. George Watt of Xenia, Ohio. Watt declined to take her on, as he wrote "for reasons beyond … control."
Years later, Taylor recalled in the third person the difficulty she faced in securing an apprenticeship. In the fall of 1859, there appeared in the western horizon a cloud "not as big as a man's hand, for it was the hand of a young girl, risen in appeal to man, … for the opportunity to enter a profession where she could earn her bread, not alone by the sweat of her brow, but by the use of her brain also. The cloud though small was portentous. It struck terror into the hearts of the community, especially the male portion of it. All innovations cause commotion. This was no exception. People were amazed when they learned that a young girl had so far forgotten her womanhood as to want to study dentistry."
[She] conquered prejudice and precedent and prepared the way for women to become practitioners of the science and art of dentistry.
—Ralph W. Edwards
From Wardle, Taylor learned the basics of dentistry, including the use of anaesthesia and the construction of false teeth. At night, she supported herself by taking in sewing. As well, she studied anatomy, hygiene, and physiology, while taking care of Wardle's office and the cleaning of his instruments. Taylor learned to extract teeth and to make fillings and dental impressions. Wardle, she noted, made it possible "for women to enter the profession. He was to us what Queen Isabella [I] was to Columbus."
With her apprenticeship completed, Taylor again applied for admission to the Ohio College of Dental Surgery in March 1861. A student from Liberia also applied to the college. The resolution passed by the college spoke for itself. "By a vote of four against two neither women, nor men of African descent, would be received." As Taylor recalled:
There was not a college in the United States that would admit me, and no amount of persuasion could change their minds. So far as I know, I was the first woman who had ever taken instruction of a private tutor.
Undeterred, she took Wardle's advice, and opened her own office in Cincinnati. Competition was stiff. Within a few weeks of opening for business, she closed her doors. The onset of the Civil War deprived her of the clientele necessary to make her practice a success.
Taylor borrowed some money and set off for the West, opening an office in Bellevue, Iowa. The curiosity of the local population was aroused by the presence of a female dentist. In one year, she repaid the loan and saved $100, investing the profits in a dental chair. By her second year, Taylor had earned enough money to fully equip her office with modern dental instruments.
Seeking even greener pastures, she then moved to McGregor, Iowa, a thriving market town with saloons, gambling houses, and a steam ferry. The boomtown atmosphere translated into a prosperous practice. During her first year in McGregor, Taylor earned $3,000, not an inconsiderable sum for the time. As her reputation spread throughout the state, she was able to charge higher fees.
On July 19, 1865, Taylor was invited to a session of the newly incorporated Iowa State Dental Society by Dr. Luman Church Ingersoll, subsequently the first dean of dentistry at the State University of Iowa. In welcoming Taylor as a member of the society, Ingersoll declared:
The profession of dentistry … has nothing in its pursuits foreign to the instincts of women, and on the other hand, presents in almost every applicant for operations, a subject requiring a kind and benevolent consideration of the most refined and womanly nature.
Taylor was the first woman in American history to be recognized by such a body. Admission to the Iowa State Dental Society helped her gain acceptance with the conservative Ohio College of Dental Surgery in 1865. After six years of professional rejection, she was finally acknowledged by her peers. "I went to Iowa to commence practice," she recalled, "and was so successful that the dentists of the State insisted I should be allowed to attend the college. Their efforts prevailed, and I graduated from the Ohio Dental College at Cincinnati in the spring of 1866—the first woman in the world to take a diploma from a dental college."
Taylor was admitted to the senior class of the Ohio College of Dental Surgery. The course consisted of four months of study, a thesis on dental science, the construction of a pair of false teeth, and examinations. Wrote Professor Jonathan Taft:
She was a woman of great energy and perseverance, studious in her habits, modest and unassuming; she had the respect and kind regard of every member of the class and faculty. As an operator she was not surpassed by her associates. Her opinion was asked and her assistance sought in difficult cases, almost daily by her fellow students. And though the class of which she was a member was one of the largest ever in attendance, it excelled all previous ones in good order and decorum—a condition largely due to the presence of a lady. In the final examination she was second to none.
On February 21, 1866, Lucy Taylor became the first woman in the world to become a Doctor of Dental Surgery. Dr. James Truman of the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery rejoiced that dentistry "welcomed a woman." The rejoicing was not universal, however. In the April 1866 issue of The Dental Times, Dr. George T. Baker wrote: "Should females be encouraged to enter the dental profession? I contend they should not…. The very form and structure of woman unfit her for its duties…. Its performance would, under certain circumstances, be attended with great danger."
While men debated the suitability of women as dentists, Taylor moved her practice to Chicago. In May 1866, she was elected to the Illinois State Dental Society. In July, she traveled to Burlington, Iowa, where she addressed the Iowa State Dental Society. In yet another first, Taylor became the first woman to lecture to a state dental association. Her paper dealt with the uses of mallet pressure, rather than hand pressure, in the filling of cavities.
In Chicago, Lucy met James Myrtle Taylor, a Civil War veteran who worked as a painter in the Chicago and Northwestern Railway maintenance shop. Following their marriage in 1867, James Taylor soon became his wife's apprentice, an interesting reversal of roles. It was common for wives to apprentice with their husbands in the trades, since it was a cost-effective way of bringing skilled hands into a family enterprise. James Taylor would learn his profession at minimal cost. As a man, it would be easy for him to become a licensed practitioner.
That November, Taylor sold her Chicago practice to Edmund Noyes, and the couple moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in December. New arrivals were pouring into the state, and dentists were much in demand. Taylor felt a particular affinity for the American frontier. As she wrote, "I am a New Yorker by birth, but I love my adopted country—the West." Together the Taylors opened a practice. While James took male patients, Lucy catered to women and children; she also specialized in false teeth. The Taylors' business partnership was a profitable one, and their practice grew into one of the largest in the state of Kansas.
In 1886, Drs. J.M. and Lucy H. Taylor took "pleasure in announcing to their many friends, and patrons in Lawrence," that they were expanding their practice. "Associated with them in the dental profession," went the announcement, was "Dr. L.M. Mathews, of Ft. Scott, widely known to the profession, as one of the finest operators in the west … equalled by few, and excelled by none in gold work, both operative and mechanical." The expansion of the practice, however, was not simply a business decision. The health of Taylor's husband had long been in decline. On December 14, 1886, James died, and Lucy Taylor went into semi-retirement. Though she continued to practice, she took only enough patients, as she commented, "to keep her out of mischief."
In later years, Taylor devoted much of her time to membership in the Rebekah Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and became the first female Noble Grand of Degree of the order. As well, she joined the Adah Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star in 1875, and became the Worthy Matron of the Adah Chapter. Taylor was also elected president of Lawrence's Republican Club. Lucy Taylor never forgot the cause of women's suffrage, and engaged in fundraising efforts to better the lot of women.
At age 77, on October 3, 1910, Lucy Taylor died of a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence, Kansas. At her funeral, former friends and patients alike recalled a woman known for her generosity and kindness of spirit. Lucy Hobbs Taylor blazed a trail for woman entering the dental profession. As she explained in a letter to Matilda Joslyn Gage , "You ask my reason for entering the profession. It was to be independent." She sought a career which offered more financial security and intellectual scope than those occupations which were traditionally reserved for women.
The example of Lucy Taylor elicited support from many quarters. By 1880, there were 61 female dentists practicing in the United States. In 1892, the Woman's Dental Association of the United States was founded. In 1896, Dr. James Truman introduced a resolution before a meeting of the American Dental Association, which read in part:
In view of the successful results obtained in the education of women as dentists, we recommend to subordinate associations to admit to full membership any woman duly qualified. … That in consultations, consid erations of sex should be avoided; ability and moral character alone being the standard of judgment in all cases.
Lucy Taylor's entry into the profession of dentistry coincided with an increasing awareness among many Americans about the importance of oral hygiene. The science itself was making rapid advances. Gone were the days when itinerant dentists used silver coins as fillings. Gold fillings were increasingly employed, as was gutta percha for root canals. The theory of sterilization was gaining increasing acceptance, and orthodontia evolved into its modern form. Taylor recognized the changing nature of orthodontia and embraced it. She wrote:
The making of false teeth is not a mere mechanical operation…. This is the study of an artist; and a dentist, so far as it is required of him to imitate nature, should be as truly an artist as if he were a sculptor carving the feature in marbles.
Much like Elizabeth Blackwell in the field of medicine, Lucy Taylor held open the door for women to enter the field of dentistry. She applied for admission to the Ohio College of Dental Surgery on three separate occasions—in 1859, 1861, and 1865, when she was finally accepted. Her battle for equal opportunity is an example of stubbornness and courage. For her efforts, Lucy Taylor emerged, not only as a pioneer in her field, but as a highly skilled and conscientious health-care professional.
Bird, Caroline. Enterprising Women. NY: W.W. Norton, 1976.
Edwards, Ralph W. "The First Woman Dentist—Lucy Hobbs Taylor, D.D.S. (1833–1910)," in Bulletin of the History of Medicine. Vol. 25, no. 3. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1951.
Golemba, Beverly E. Lesser-known Women. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1992.
Stern, Madeleine B. We the Women. NY: Schulte, 1963.
Stern, Madeleine B. "Taylor, Lucy Beaman Hobbs," in Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Edward T. James, ed. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.
Hugh A. Stewart , M.A., University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada