- by Andrew I. Spielman, DMD, PhD
Professor of Basic Science & Craniofacial Biology; Associate Dean for Academic Affairs
As we celebrate NYU Dentistry’s sesquicentennial, marking the establishment on March 31, 1865, of the New York College of Dentistry — today’s NYU College of Dentistry — it is worth noting that the 175-year history of formal dental education in the U.S. is replete with dental schools that opened, merged, but mostly closed. Historically, a total of 183 dental schools have opened in the U.S. over the past 175 years, and 55 percent of these schools no longer exist, including 46 schools that lasted less than 10 years.
To date, only two other dental schools have celebrated a sesquicentennial: the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, founded in 1840 in Baltimore as the Baltimore Dental College, and Temple University School of Dentistry, founded in 1863 in Philadelphia as the Philadelphia Dental College. In 1865, when New York College of Dentistry was poised to open, there were six other dental schools in the U.S., including the schools at the Baltimore Dental College and the Philadelphia Dental College. The other four schools—in Cincinnati, Syracuse, New York, New Orleans, and a second school in Philadelphia—no longer exist.
The New York College of Dentistry held its first session in 1866. The academic year, consisting of didactic and clinical training, lasted approximately five months — from early October through early March. Through spring and part of the summer, another three months were dedicated to clinical training in the “Infirmary.” Each student was assigned a clinical preceptor. There was no high school or other prerequisite and no specific age requirement for application. It was not until 1900 that the New York State Board of Regents mandated that a student must be at least 21 years of age to be eligible to practice dentistry in New York. Prior to that time, students who applied to dental school were as young as 16. Some required their parents to vouch for them so that they could apply. Anyone with eight years prior experience in the practice of dentistry could be admitted to an Advanced Standing Program, which was one session in duration.
In fact, the practice of dentistry with or without formal education or apprenticeship was widespread. The 1860 U.S. census lists 5,606 dentists. Only about 10 percent of those had graduated from a dental school. At the outset there were 10 elected professors and 18 clinical instructors (part-time faculty) in the following disciplines: general and dental anatomy, dental histology, physiology, chemistry, metallurgy, dental pathology and therapeutics, oral surgery, operative dentistry, and dental art and mechanisms. During the first session, professors were elected, rather than appointed. They all had formal dental and/or medical training. Many of them were quite famous. For example, Eleazar Parmly, DDS, MD, president of the Board of Directors of NYCD from 1866–69, was one of the founding members, a past president of the American Society of Dental Surgeons, and a past provost of the Baltimore Dental College (1851–52). He was close friends with President Lincoln, who entertained him at the White House; was received by Napoleon III and Pope Pius IX; and was briefly engaged to Mary Astor (of the famed Astor family).
Other early professors were leaders in organized dentistry. Dr. William Henry Atkinson, one of the founders of NYCD, was the first president of the American Dental Association (1859–61), and the only one to serve two terms. All professors held either DDS, MD, or dual DDS, MD degrees. The first elected dean was Dr. Norman W. Kingsley (1865–69), considered the father of orthodontics.
A total of 31 students were enrolled in the first session. Attrition was 35 percent in the first decades, compared to two percent today, and during the first 10 years, tuition was $150 per year, a large sum for the day.
On April 1, 1867, the first nine graduates of the New York College of Dentistry received their DDS degrees.
NYU College of Dentistry’s 150 years of history were not without challenges, as well as triumphs. In 1869, the College suspended its operations for six months to settle a lawsuit that questioned the standards of education provided and the criteria for awarding degrees. After the lawsuit was settled successfully, the College resumed operations.
Then, in the early years of the 20th century, as a result of the 1910 Flexner report — which gave formal voice to a rising backlash against the proliferation of proprietary medical and dental schools — and a subsequent New York State mandate that required dental schools to be part of a university—NYCD tried unsuccessfully to join several major universities. Between 1909 and 1925, the College approached Cornell, Columbia, and NYU (twice) to foster a merger. The last attempt, in 1925, was successful, due in large part to the efforts and influence of Dr. William J. Gies, a Columbia University biochemist with a particular interest in dental education and dental research and its clinical applications. In 1926, Dr. Gies published Dental Education in the United States and Canada, known as the Gies Report, which was sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation. He worked closely with NYU Chancellor Elmer Ellsworth Brown to realize NYCD’s goal — affiliation with a major university — which was achieved on June 30, 1925, when the New York College of Dentistry merged with New York University to become the NYU College of Dentistry.
The merger created higher standards for admission, a more rigorous curriculum, and an instantly burnished reputation. Even before joining NYU, the College had been a trailblazer in modernizing education and increasing requirements for admission. It was, for example, the first dental school to mandate a high school diploma for admission and one of the first to increase its curriculum from two to three years. Nevertheless, the merger with NYU was a necessary rebirth for the College.
For its first session, the College rented two rooms on the first floor of a building located at 161 Fifth Avenue, at 22nd Street. All subsequent locations have been in the same neighborhood. As the College expanded and more space was needed, NYU Dentistry moved in 1868 into another rental space, this time at 107 West 23rd Street, on the northwest corner of Sixth Avenue.
After less than a year, there was another new rental location — at the corner of 21st Street and Broadway. In 1873, another rental space was occupied — in a building at the northwest corner of 23rd Street and Second Avenue. That building has since been demolished. After 18 years at that location, NYU Dentistry moved in 1891 to 23rd Street, between Second and Third Avenues (the site of today’s School of Visual Arts), which marked its first real estate purchase.
In 1957, the College moved to a building that it still occupies, at 421 First Avenue, which in 1965 was named for its principal donor, K. B. Weissman. Also in 1957, the College bought a second building, known as the Basic Science Building, located at First Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets. In 1978, the College added the Arnold and Marie Schwartz Hall of Dental Sciences, located at 345 E. 24th Street at First Avenue, which was the first building constructed at NYU specifically as a dental school. The Basic Science Building closed in 1988 and was demolished in 2011. A new, interprofessional building opened on that site in January 2015. The new building provides additional space for NYU Dentistry, plus a home for the NYU College of Nursing and space for a new NYU Bioengineering Institute.
A total of 22,591 dentists have graduated from NYU Dentistry since its inception, amounting to 8 percent of all U.S. dentists annually. Throughout that period, NYU Dentistry has been a magnet for immigrants, initially from Europe — where political upheavals led to the arrival of European students — but soon from other countries as well. During the College’s first 30 years, students consisted primarily of German, British, Canadian, Caribbean, and Russian immigrants. By the time NYCD became NYU Dentistry, its composition was primarily Anglo-Saxon, Italian, and East European Jews, reflecting immigration patterns. The photo from 1890 shows an all-male student body, though nearly two decades earlier, a Russian-Lithuanian woman, Helen Vongl de Swiderska, graduated from NYU Dentistry, becoming the third women in the U.S. to earn a dental degree.
Today, NYU Dentistry attracts students from 55 countries; more than 40 different languages are spoken; and the student body consists of approximately 50 percent male and 50 percent female students.
In the early 1970s, as social mores and expectations changed, women started to enroll in large numbers at NYU Dentistry. Also in the 1970s, social clashes — many resulting from conflicting positions on the Vietnam War — placed the leadership of the College and its students in opposite camps, frequently resulting in demonstrations.
The College has had 14 permanent and four interim or acting deans. The average tenure for a dean has been 10 years. The longest serving dean was Frank Abbott (1869 to 1897). When, in 1896, he attempted to secure the deanship for his son, the faculty rebelled, forcing his retirement and electing as dean Faneuil D. Weisse, an MD and oral surgeon. Dr. Weisse was a founder of the College, a faculty member beginning in 1865, and its dean from 1897 to 1912. The shortest serving dean, for one year, was Holmes C. Jackson, who died in office in 1927.
Since its founding, the College has more than doubled the length of its curriculum. The most significant changes occurred during the years preceding and following publication of the Gies Report, when the curriculum moved from 22.5 months over three years to 40 months over four years. At the same time, college requirements increased from none to two years by the time of the merger with NYU in 1925, and, from that year onward, to a prerequisite of a four-year college degree. Courses in chemistry and histology were introduced in 1891. Preclinical laboratory training for operative dentistry and oral prosthetics was introduced in 1894. Attendance was mandatory for all lectures and clinics. Students were dismissed for nonattendance, theft, cheating, and gambling. A famous dismissal occurred in 1891, when, after two years of enrollment, Randolph Parker (a.k.a. "Painless" Parker), a flamboyant street dentist described by the American Dental Association as "a menace to the dignity of the profession," was dismissed from NYCD for nonattendance.
It would be impossible in this brief overview to list all the NYU dental graduates who have achieved fame and prominence. Since its founding in 1865, NYU Dentistry has produced leaders in clinical patient care, research, education, public service, and organized dentistry. NYU dental graduates have pioneered treatment advances in implant dentistry and aesthetic dentistry that have transformed patient care. From the ranks of our alumni have come the authors of leading dental textbooks; Dr. Robert Ledley, the inventor of the whole-body ACTA (CAT) scanner; presidents of all of the major dental organizations; Dr. Martha Somerman, the current director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR); Dr. Eduardo Rodriguez, the plastic surgeon who, in 2012, led an unprecedented total facial reconstruction of a patient who had lost much of his face during a shotgun accident; and the deans of major U.S. dental schools.
This tradition continues unabated. Thanks to revolutionary advances in information technology, research collaboration, and global public health, the current generation of NYU dental alumni is achieving in unprecedented ways.
Today’s NYU Dentistry has never been more prosperous or more highly regarded among its alumni, the public, peer institutions, and national and international organizations. NYU Dentistry is more selective in its admission policies than ever before; its impact on dental education, patient care, and research has never been greater; and our students’ performance on national and regional standardized exams is at an all-time high. We celebrate NYU Dentistry’s 150th anniversary with a sense of accomplishment and optimism about the future.