Each week for 26 weeks, I am publishing a post about women who are not widely known but should be—women who can inspire us, teach us, and encourage us to get out of our comfort zones and reach for our dreams. Week 9 of my A to Z challenge introduces us to Ida Gray Nelson Rollins.
I have never been to a female dentist. While I have been a patient of many female hygienists, every dentist I have ever been to has been male. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 28% of current practicing dentists in the US are women (kff.org). Yet women only began filling seats in US dental schools in significant numbers in the 1960s and 1970s. Federal financial incentives, active recruitment, and the women’s movement all contributed to the increase in female dental school students. However, a few ambitious women pursued a career in dentistry a century before second wave feminism (Hyson).
The first woman to establish herself in a regular dental practice was Emeline Roberts Jones, who joined her husband’s practice in 1859. After his death, she continued practicing on her own, establishing one of the largest practices in Connecticut. She worked until she was 78 years old (Hyson).
The first African American woman to receive a dental degree was Ida Gray Nelson Rollins, who graduated from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1890. Ida was born in 1867 in Clarksville, Tennessee. Her mother died when Ida was just an infant. After her death, Ida was taken in by her aunt, Caroline Gray, who had three other children (her father, who was white, played no role in her life). Caroline and the children moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1868. Although she couldn’t read or write, Caroline worked as a seamstress and foster parent in order to support her family (blackpast.org).
Ida attended segregated public schools in Ohio, and when she was in high school she took part time jobs as a seamstress and as an office assistant for a dentist. The practice she worked in belonged to Jonathan and William Taft. Jonathan Taft was a cofounder of the American Dental Association, who advocated on behalf of women who wished to enter the field. By the time Ida graduated from high school in 1887 at age 20, Jonathan was working as the first dean of the Dental College of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He was successful in his efforts to get women admitted to the program, and encouraged Ida to apply (encyclopedia.com).
Her experience in the Taft practice allowed her to pass the rigorous entrance exam, and she graduated in June of 1890 as the first African American woman to be awarded a dental degree (encyclopedia.com).
After graduation she returned to Cincinnati and opened her own private practice, where she worked until 1895. That year, she married James Sanford Nelson, a Spanish-American War veteran. He lived in Chicago where he served as the captain and quartermaster for the National Guard Eighth Regiment. Ida moved to Chicago with her husband, and became the first female African-American dentist to practice in that city: “Gray had a very diverse clientele, serving men and women of all races and ages. She was especially kind to children and served as a role model for many of her young patients. Most notably Gray mentored one of her patients, Olive M. Henderson, who became the second female African-American dentist in Chicago….Aside from mentoring, Gray was also active in many women’s organizations in Chicago. In particular she served as the vice president of the Professional Women’s Club of Chicago” (encyclopedia.com).
Three years after her husband’s death in 1926, Ida remarried William A. Rollins, who passed away in 1944. She retired in the 1930s, and spent the rest of her life in Chicago, although she spent most summers at her second home in Idlewild, Michigan. Ida died in 1953 at the age of 86 (encyclopedia.com).
I is for Ida Gray Nelson Rollins, who helped pave the way for women in dentistry.
Hyson, John M., Jr., DDS, MS, MA. Women Dentists: The Origins. Journal of the California Dental Association, 2002.