For being the shortest month of the year, February sure has a LOT happening in these 28 short days! Not only do we celebrate #NationalChildrensDentalHealthMonth, but also honor #BlackHistoryMonth, in addition to ALL the Valentine's Day hearts, flowers and love. THEN...to top it all off, we began this week with #InventorsDay on the 11th.
So, we decided to show a little love to those unsung Dentists who invented some surprising NON-DENTAL things we all know! And there's no better place to start than with Dr. George F. Grant, an African-American dentist. , invented the golf tee. Born in 1847 in Oswego, New York, Grant worked for his hometown Dentist – Dr. Albert Smith – first by running errands, then "bitten" by the Dentistry bug, Grant's mentor took notice and expanded his responsibilities into the laboratory, then later as a chairside assistant position.
At the age of 19, Grant left his hometown for Boston. He quickly found work as a Dental assistant and honed his skills until accepted into the Harvard School of Dental Medicine at 21. And, as much prestige as Harvard still carries, at the time Grant entered it was the FIRST university-based Dental program in the nation! In 1870, Grant graduated with honors, as only the second African American in the U.S. and to earn a degree in Dentistry.
After graduation, he was invited to join the university faculty in the Department of Mechanical Dentistry – a precusor of the eventual claim to fame we're discussing today – also making him the FIRST African-American member of the Harvard University staff. He took his love for innovation not only into his Dental profession, but literally extended it "outside" the laboratory and classroom!
Taking his true passion for physics onto the Franklin Park golf course just outside Boston, (only the second public course in the United States), Grant could indulge his love for the growing sport among the masses...in a day and age when private clubs were openly segregated by both class and race. Observing the common practice of teeing golf balls off a pinched mound of sand – something Grant noted led to erratic play, even among golfers with a consistent game.
Taking to his own homemade golf course, he tinkered with various prototypes for months to create a tee based on his Dental knowledge. In December of 1899, he received U.S. Patent 638,920 for a tee combining a short wooden spike with a flexible rubber peg for the golf ball to perch on...and Doctors today STILL appreciate the value of his contribution!
"Fairy Floss" By Any Other Name...
Not to be left out of the fun, another Dentist can be credited with one of the more surprising innovations. William James Morrison, a Dentist and inventor from Nashville, Tennessee, earns credit for the first cotton candy machine! In 1897 he and his friend, confectioner John C. Wharton, worked together to produce a machine (which they called the “electric candy machine”) to melt sugar in a spinning central chamber. Then, using forced air, the melted sugar was pushed through a wire screen into the encircling metal bowl. The result: that lighter-than-air, sweet confection now available at public venues worldwide.
Dubbed "Fairy Floss" by its inventors, what we now know as cotton candy made its American debut during the seven-month-long St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. They sold their confection in boxes, priced at 25 cents apiece. And their spun sugar immediately found an eager audience, as evidenced by the 65,555 BOXES Morrison and Wharton sold. Kinda makes you wonder if Dr. Morrison was trying to drum up some new business!
The career of another inventor took a rather unexpected path to his particular claim to fame – via the ministry! Born in Glastonbury, England on New Year's Eve 1825, Thomas Bramwell Welch moved to the United States when his father emigrated in 1834. He excelled in the Watertown, NY public schools and at the age of 17 he joined the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion – founded that same year (1843).
After completing his seminary studies, Welch ministered to several parishes before his voice no longer allowed him to fulfill those responsibilities. However, their loss was medicine's gain! First pursuing a medical degree in New York, he eventually turned his talents to Dentistry. Yet, through these multiple transitions, Dr. Welch maintained a staunch adherence to his Wesleyan faith, which included among its bedrock tenets a "strong opposition to the manufacturing, buying, selling, or using intoxicating liquors..."
This led to an interesting conundrum – led by the first edition of their Wesleyan Methodist Discipline expressly requiring that "unfermented wine only should be used at the sacrament" of the Lord's Supper (Communion). How to keep the juice from neither spoiling or fermenting? Using his scientific knowledge, Dr. Welch invented a pasteurization process for grape juice that kept it from fermenting. Welch’s intention was to create a non-alcoholic wine that could be used for church sacraments and he actively urged congregations to use "Dr. Welch's Unfermented Wine." It wasn't until two of his sons – who also followed in their father's Dental footsteps and grape juice interest – "officially" launched Welch's Grape Juice Company in 1893...leading to generations of purple teeth!
Now THAT'S A Hair-Raising "Dental" Visit
Honestly, we DO understand that even the thought of a visit to the Dentist can send waves of fear through the majority of people. But, it could be a LOT worse! You could find yourself sitting in Alfred P. Southwick's chair. A prominent Dentist in 1881, Dr. Southwick also served on a committee to try and find a kinder, more humane alternative to hanging.
When out one evening, he happened to observe an intoxicated man who mistakenly touched a live generator terminal and subsequently died. This led Dr. Southwick to conclude that electrocution was a more humane form of legal punishment than other methods, such as beheading by a guillotine, hanging or suffocation.
This is when an idea took root – to use a device he worked with on a daily basis: the dentists chair! His intimate familiarity with how the chairs worked for people, as a dentist, he began to see how they could be adapted for this "unique" use. As the only chairs during that time with the versatility and functionality required to fulfil the role adequately, Southwick designed the first electric execution device to restrain the condemned and incorporate the required electrical connections.
As a true believer in the "humane" nature of his device, over the next decade Dr. Southwick worked tirelessly to promote the passage of laws mandating electrical execution, and the first electrical execution law went into effect on January 1, 1889, when a man convicted of killing his mistress was electrocuted.
And while you may STILL experience anxiety the next time you slip into the Dentist's chair, take heart in the fact only a smiling Dental professional will greet you...not some hooded executioner!
So, the next time you indulge in some cotton candy or pour a chilled glass of grape juice or tee-up your ball on a well-manicured golf course, think about the Dentists who made life a little more interesting – and SMILE!