Archivist’s Angle: Public Service and Saints in the College of Dentistry
March 15, 2018
Emily Rose Johnson (GSAS ’18)
From the establishment on March 31, 1865, of the New York College of Dentistry to the “Smiling Faces, Going Places” mobile dental van launched in 2000 to serve children without access to dental care, the NYU College of Dentistry—from its inception and under the name and governance of NYU—has merged practical student training with service to the city.
Founded as the New York College of Dentistry in 1865, the school participated in the early days of a push to better educate practicing dentists, who had previously entered the profession with a wide range in the quantity and quality of their training. Though earlier attempts to found a college in New York City in 1852 and 1860 had failed due to lack of funds and pushback from practicing dentists, the new college sought to involve practicing dentists “for the purpose of taking into consideration the interests and wishes of the dental profession in connection with the college.” The resulting course of study emphasized that all courses in dentistry and “collateral sciences” be “taught demonstratively, the only mode in which such learning can be accurately and permanently acquired.” Third year students worked in the infirmary and attended courses free of charge, while in the first two years students were still encouraged to “embrace the facilities afforded by the Infirmary, the Laboratory, and the Dissecting-room.”
Today, ten percent of dentists in the United States are alumni of what in 1925 became the New York University College of Dentistry. But one early alumnus left another legacy, the result of a hobby that combined his “major intellectual and professional interests,” in the topic of Saint Apollonia, the patron saint of dentistry. Morris Mestel, class of 1901 at the College of Dentistry, studied improvements to the root canal procedure, presided as president of the Eastern Dental Society, and published several works on and collected hundreds of images of Apollonia, who was said to have been tortured by having her teeth removed. Usually showing her holding a tooth in pincers, the images he collected are largely reproductions of 15th and 16th century Italian paintings, cataloged by region (though not always with artist attribution). A selection of images from Mestel’s collection, held in the University Archives, can be viewed along with dental instruments and artifacts from throughout the history of the College.