Famous Dentists, from Outlaws to Politicians

In the history of dentistry, there have been dentists who invented new tools or methods, started dental schools, made discoveries, or advanced the profession in other significant ways. Many of these dentists remain well known in their field and are still recognized and honored, but some dentists have gone on to become famous, or even infamous, for reasons that have nothing to do with oral health.

One dentist in particular became notorious during the days of the Wild West. Ever heard of “Doc” Holliday? John Henry Holliday was a “doc” because he had worked as a dentist. He is best known for his partnership with Wyatt Earp and their infamous battle at the OK Corral. Holliday became a gunslinger after leaving an active dental practice in Atlanta. He contracted tuberculosis and abandoned his practice for the West’s drier air and gambling dens.

A decade after Holliday passed, Harry J. “Doc” Sagansky was born in Boston in 1898. After graduating in dentistry at Tufts University, he opened his practice at a pharmacy, which was also a secret liquor store during Prohibition. Sagansky eventually became involved in illegal gambling, nightclubs, and loan sharking. He served jail time for attempting to bribe a city official and was hauled into court during organized-crimed hearings in the 1950s for being a major figure in “the largest racket kingdom” in Boston. He has the dubious distinction of being the oldest organized crime figure to be sentenced to Federal prison at the age of 91.

Another dentist, Thomas Welch, started his career as a Methodist minister but decided to attend New York Medical College in 1856. While building a successful dental practice in New Jersey, he invented a non-alcoholic grape juice to be used instead of wine in religious services. Welch’s grape juice became popular in the 1890s (and remains popular to this day), while Welch continued to practice dentistry.

Some other dentists that became well known include:

  • Zane Grey – He chose New York City to begin his dental practice because he wanted to be near publishers. He eventually became famous for writing over 80 western novels.
  • Annie Elizabeth Delaney – A 1923 graduate of Columbia University, she was the second African American woman to be a dentist in New York, but she is better known for her best-seller, Having Our Sky, which also became a Broadway play.
  • Paul Revere – He is famous for alerting Boston citizens that “The British are coming…,” but he was a dentist who also made dentures for his patients.
  • Charles Murray Turpin – Turpin, a Pennsylvania dentist, served 15 years in Congress in the 1930s. Three dentists are currently Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives: Brian Babin (Texas), Paul Gosar (Arizona) and Mike Simpson (Idaho).
  • Steve Arline – Arline, a pitcher in the National League in the 1970s, was known for his baseball career of 463 strikeouts. Arline practiced dentistry after retiring from baseball. Another successful pitcher, James Reynold Lonborg (better known as “Gentleman Jim”), also became a dentist later in life.
  • Alfred P. Southwick – This Buffalo, New York dentist is credited with creating the first electric chair.

Most dentists seem mild-mannered and friendly, but as you can see, they sometimes hide hidden talents and notorious secrets.

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