Stephen F. Austin State University

Olden Days of Dentistry (January 2012)

Olden Days of Dentistry
By Deborah Burkett

While preparing this column, I began by tracing the evolution of dentistry in the United States and found some interesting milestones. For example, during our American Revolution, Paul Revere placed ads in a Boston newspaper offering his services as a dentist. In 1776, in the first known case of post-mortem dental forensics, Revere verified the death of his friend, Dr. Joseph Warren, in the Battle of Breed's Hill by recognizing the dental bridge he had constructed.

One of George Washington's dentists, John Greenwood, adapted his mother's foot treadle spinning wheel to construct the first known dental foot engine in 1790.

The 'key', a dental instrument used to extract teeth, was first made by blacksmith who often served as dentists. Modeled after a door key, it was inserted horizontally into the mouth and its "claw" tightened over a tooth. Whoa! I'll stop there.

Closer to home, in 1806, the avuntamiento or city council of San Antonio gave Don Pedro Lartique a license to practice. By 1838 other dental surgeons came to the Republic of Texas. The census of 1850 listed 13 dentists in Texas; by 1870 that number had grown to 102; today there are over 10,000 active dentists in the state.

East Texas has produced many laudable men; a few will be highlighted here to illustrate the progression of dentistry. At one time folks in Cherokee County could stop by the J. B. Cleaver Blacksmith shop in the Lone Star community for wagon wheel repairs and dental work.

Alto native, James Curtis 'Jim' Hill, was a dentist of a different sort-- a veteran of World War I, a student at Jacksonville Baptist College and graduate of Vanderbilt University who married his hometown sweetheart, Stella Salmon. The Alto library is named in her honor.

Before World War I, Dr. Hill set up a practice with Dr. C.W. Fisher, Sr. in an office over Fred Guinn's Drugstore in Alto. Later James Fisher, great nephew of C. W. Fisher, became a dentist and practiced in Rusk in the 1950's and 60's.

Accompanying this article is Hill's Vanderbilt graduation picture, taken in 1914. He entered the university in 1911, received his D.D.S degree and during his lifetime amassed 30 years in the profession. After his father died, Hill quit dentistry and for 46 years managed the family farm and land holdings. Recognized locally and statewide as a pioneer in experimental ranching, he lived to see his 104th birthday!

In Jacksonville, many remember Dr. Stafford Fields atop the old First National Bank building. Elray Partin of Mixon shared, "…during the 1940s while working at Childs Piggly Wiggly I had a terrible tooth ache…told someone to watch the register while I walked across the street, 'Doc' Fields took care of me and sent me back to work…" Shelley Cleaver and Christine Bunn also remember visiting the dentist in the old bank building; Myra Hamilton was office nurse.

Charles Harold Creed came to Jacksonville in 1956 after serving in the Air Force as a dental officer in Japan. He moved into the space vacated by 'Doc' Fields. Creed shared, "…There were three other practicing dentists in Jacksonville at the time…but jokingly I said I was the highest…located on the 5th floor of the First National Bank building…Alvin Peeples 'ran' the evaluator…"

Reality has hit. The story of dentistry can't be told in just one column. There are more aspects to research, such as--Fred Guinn, born 1883 in Rusk, was also a Vanderbilt grad and practicing dentist in Groveton and Lufkin. He brought the game of football from Vanderbilt to Rusk and introduced it into the schools.

Note: Also submitted with this column is a dental chair, (photographed from the back), thought to be used at the old Rusk State Hospital. The chair is on exhibit at the Heritage Center of Cherokee County in Rusk, Texas.

(Sources and references: Special thanks to my periodontist in Tyler, Dr. John E. Adcock, DDS, MS, for suggesting this topic and to those quoted in the column. Cherokeean, Dr. Hill's 90th Birthday, Betty Spaulding,1983. Virginia Singletary, Director, Stella Hill Library, Alto. Pat Tennison, Dr. Field's niece. Handbook of Texas on Line. Cherokee County History published 1986. Director Kevin Stingley, Rusk Cherokee Heritage Center.)