The Year 1887

A Look at our College's Past: The Year 1887

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

Over one hundred and twenty-five years ago, in 1887, the New York College of Dentistry, as it was known before its 1925 merger with NYU, was poised to graduate its twenty-second class, consisting of 50 students. What was it like to be a dental student in 1887?

First, educating a dentist took less than half the time it takes today, plus an additional year of clinical practice in the Infirmary before being awarded a license to practice. 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 from among the faculty. All lectures were offered at the same time to all enrolled students that year, regardless of whether they were first- or second-year students. There was no high school or other prerequisite and no specific age requirement for application. It took 13 more years for the New York State Board of Regents to mandate that a student must be at least 21 years old 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.

Among a total of 211 students enrolled in all classes in 1887, 80 percent came from the US, the majority from the New York area. The remainder came from 14 different countries, including Europe, South America, Central America, Canada, and the West Indies. Such diversity was common, even in the first 22 years of the College's history. An analysis of the 545 alumni of the College who graduated from the time of the College's founding in 1865 through 1887 reveals that 19 percent (103 students) came from 30 countries, and, upon graduation, decided to practice outside the US in countries that included North, Central, and South America, Australia and Europe. Still, a majority of the graduates, 40 percent (218 graduates) went into practice in New York, while another 41 percent established practices elsewhere in the US.

Location, Location, Location

After renting rooms at four different locations in the vicinity of 23d Street and Broadway during its first several years, in 1869 the College settled into a rental of several floors in a four-story building at the northwest corner of 23d Street and Second Avenue (225 East 23d Street). (Figure 1)

The College remained in this building until 1891, when, due to its increased enrollment and impending change in the curriculum from two to three years, it moved to 203–207 East 23d Street, at the current site of the School of Visual Arts.The year 1887 was one of significant expansion. Minutes for the annual meeting of the College's Board of Trustees reveals a $65,000 budget ($1,675,555 in today's dollars)*, of which $1,237 went for rental space. This translates into $31,887 in today's dollars.

The Dean of the College was Frank Abbott, MD, professor of dental surgery and therapeutics (Figure 2), who had joined the College as one of its founding members. In 1887, Frank Abbott was a member of the Board of Trustees and Faculty Council and was serving his 18th year as dean. Frank Abbott led the school for another 10 years, until his death in 1897, at which time another founding member, Professor Faneuil Weisse, became dean.

Even in 1887, the College had a 7:1 student-to-faculty ratio. There were five professors, three lecturers, five assistants, and 18 clinical faculty members for the Infirmary.

The curriculum, comprising far fewer subjects than the current one, included regional anatomy, practical anatomy (laboratory), visceral anatomy, physiology, histology, practical histology (laboratory), chemistry, practical (laboratory) chemistry, oral surgery (lectures and clinics), hospital clinics (today's hospital dentistry), operative dentistry, mechanical dentistry (lectures and clinics), and dental therapeutics. Hospital clinical practice took place at Charity and Bellevue Hospitals. Anatomy dissections were performed at the Department of Anatomy at the University of the City of New York (today's NYU School of Medicine).

The curriculum required students to use a total of 24 textbooks, some of which are still in use today, including Gray's Anatomy. Also among the books that students used were Weisse's Practical Human Anatomy, Holden's Osteology, Green's Pathology, Wedl's Dental Pathology, Harris's Dictionary of Dental Surgery, Richardson's Mechanical Dentistry, and Mitchell's Dental Chemistry.

In order to attend a lecture or clinical training at the Infirmary, students were required to purchase a ticket to individual courses and clinics. Tuition covered the cost of the tickets. Instruments and books were extra and they were quite expensive. Tuition for the two years was $255 ($120 + $135). The two summer Infirmary tickets were purchased separately for an additional $90 ($45 + $45). (Figures 3 and 4) The total fees for two years, $345, would represent $8,893 in today's dollars.

The winter schedule for 1886-87 reveals that students had 13-hour days (9 am to 10 pm), either in class/clinic and/or labs (Figure 5). A typical spring schedule from March through June was eight hours, 9 am to 5 pm, consisting mostly of clinics or labs for underclass students.

Upon graduation, students received a large diploma with elegant handwriting on parchment. Figure 6 shows the 1889 diploma of Ralph Waldo Emerson (unrelated to the poet).

The life of a dentist in 1887 was very different from what it is today. A period photo (Figure 7) shows a dentist treating a patient. There was no electricity or running water. Because of the lack of electricity, all treatment had to take place during daylight. Patients were seated in rooms facing large windows. By all accounts a foot-pedal-operated (treadle) drill was used. Anesthesia, primarily laughing gas or ether, available for 40 years, was used for extractions but not for fillings or other dental procedures. The dentist shown in Figure 7 is Dr. Henry N. Dodge, son of one of the founding members of the College, J. Smith Dodge, Jr. He is in his street clothes with no gloves, mask, or shields. The work of the great microbiologists—Koch, Pasteur, Lister—had not yet penetrated the day-to-day operations of a dental office. Gloves and local anesthesia, such as Novocaine, had to wait another 18 years before being introduced in 1905.

*Estimates are based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI).