It Happened A Century Ago


- by Andrew I. Spielman, DMD, PhD
  Professor of Basic Science & Craniofacial Biology; Associate Dean for Academic Affairs

So much has changed in dental education and practice over the past 100 years. Yet it is easy to forget how very different dentistry was one hundred years ago compared to the system we have today.

In 1911, 14 years prior to its affiliation with New York University, today’s NYU Dentistry was known as the New York College of Dentistry. One hundred years ago, the New York College of Dentistry had just graduated its 46th class celebrating the end of their third (and final) year of dental school. The College was located at 205-207 East 23d Street, at the site of what is today the School of Visual Arts.

In the wider world, Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole; Ernest Rutherford had explained the existence of a compact atomic nucleus; the first ocean-going diesel ship had been launched; and Marie Curie had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

Dentistry, however, had not yet reached professional prominence. Dental clinics were crowded, and outfitted in a primitive fashion. X-ray machines, just introduced, were crude, expensive, and potentially dangerous to use due to high radiation dosages and secondary "scatter" effects. The dental chair was pneumatic and practi-tioners stood during treatment. Drilling was done using a foot treadle dental engine. Amalgam and zinc oxychloride cement were the predominant restorative materials and gold foil was state-of-the-art. Antibiotics had not yet been discovered. Salvarsan had just made its debut in the fight against syphilis. Infection control in dentistry was almost nonexistent and Novocaine had just been introduced as a local anesthetic.

But major change was on the horizon. Following the publication of the Flexner report (1909) that revolutionized medical education in the United States, the College of Dentistry actively sought an alliance with a major research university, and looked at partners, including NYU, Columbia, and Cornell. It was not to happen, however, until 1925, when the New York College of Dentistry officially merged with New York University, which led to the promotion of research and postdoctoral education.

In 1911, the 51-week academic year consisted of didactic and clinical sessions that started at the beginning of October, with the didactic portion lasting 32 weeks. Commencement exercises were held on Monday, June 5, at Carnegie Hall.

Tuition in 1911 was $185, with an additional $5 for registration and $10 for the Infirmary fee; instruments and books were additional. Twenty textbooks were recommended in 1911. Interestingly, the Department of Anatomy was using Gray's textbook. The average textbook cost $4.00. The most expensive textbook was G.V. Black's Operative Dentistry ($10). The total cost for the 20 textbooks was $81. Additionally, instruments for all three years cost $173. Room and board was between $5 and $9 per week. All told, the cost of tuition, fees, books, and instruments per year was approximately $285.

How much was $285 in 1911? To put things in perspective, in 1911 the average cost of gas was seven cents per gallon; first-class mail was two cents; the average salary was $750 per year; one ounce of gold was $18.92; and an average home cost between $2,000 and $5,000.

Students received a "ticket" upon payment of their fees. These tickets entitled them to attend lectures and participate in patient care. For 17 weeks during the summer months, students participated in a full-time clinical education course in what was called the "infirmary," for a grand total of 300-plus clinical training days over the course of the year.

The academic year had few interruptions: only six official holidays and a nine-day winter break between December 23 and January 2. From May 2 to May 31, all students attended an examination session, which consisted of five oral and written (essay) examinations. Oral examinations were conducted before all professors, who were also the chairs of the individual departments. In addition, all students, except freshmen, had two practical exams. Freshmen had only one practical. Failure rate was close to 25 percent. Re-exams took place in the fall semester. There was a high rate of attrition as indicated in the considerable drop in the number of students from year to year (141 freshmen versus 100 in the second year and 85 in the third year).

Patient care began in the freshman year with 60 hours in the extraction clinic. The three-year dental curriculum looked a lot different (see table below) from what we know today.

Click on the image to view a larger versionThe College's academic bulletin indicates that during the academic year 1910-1911, students took 173 radiographs. Similar statistics regarding the oral surgery clinic indicate that the clinic had seen 1,686 oral surgery cases and performed 6,241 extractions. Among the cases treated by students were 212 mandibular and six maxillary fractures; 296 acute and chronic alveolar abscesses; 39 impacted wisdom teeth; 13 cases of necrosis of the jaws; and seven oral lesions due to syphilis.

Students performed 13,856 fillings and 1,400-plus prosthetic treatments. Overall during 1911, 9,786 patients were treated at the College during 32,245 visits. Eight hundred and eighty-four (8.6 percent) of the patients received free treatment because they could not afford to pay anything. Even when paying, patients were charged solely for the material used in treatment.

The New York State Licensing exam was offered three times a year: in September, February, and June. There were no National Dental Board Examinations at the time. The National Dental Board Exams were introduced in 1933-1934.

The Dean of the College in 1911 was Faneuil D. Weisse, an MD oral surgeon. Dr. Weisse was a founder of the College, a faculty member beginning with its establishment in 1865, and its dean from 1897 to 1912. He was a well-respected teacher and leader.

Overall, students at the New York College of Dentistry had a very busy curriculum even 100 years ago. They worked hard under less than ideal conditions and practiced dentistry focused on infections, extractions, and restorations that used rather simple methods. Considerable advances in science, technology, and education over the past 100 years have moved dental education into new areas, especially prevention, and have made dental practice much more effective, safer, and more efficient. The beneficiaries of these advances have been patients, students, and educators alike, in the process creating today’s New York University College of Dentistry, which is recognized as a leading source for dental care in New York City and a leader in national research rankings and national policy issues in dentistry.