By Kathleen Guthrie
The idiom “like pulling teeth” is a fun way of saying something is “extremely difficult.” Getting out of a cozy bed when it’s 26 degrees outside is like pulling teeth. Deciding to train for a marathon when you’ve been a couch potato for the first 40 years of your life is like pulling teeth. For Lucy Hobbs Taylor, becoming the first American female dentist when schools wouldn’t admit her because she was a woman was…like pulling teeth.
Born in 1833 in New York, Lucy was determined to move beyond the traditionally limited female roles of motherhood, teaching, and nursing. She was after an advanced degree in medicine, but a college of medicine in Ohio rejected her application because she was a woman. Undaunted, she began studying privately with one of the school’s professors. She discovered a passion for dentistry and continued private studies with the dean of the Ohio College of Dental Surgery and as an apprentice. Still, the college refused her application. In 1861, she was only 28 when she opened her own practice in Cincinnati, which she soon moved to Iowa.
By 1865, Lucy had proven herself to her colleagues, and the Iowa State Dental Society accepted her as a member. That same year, with four years of professional practice serving as credit, she became part of the senior class of the Ohio College of Dental Surgery. She graduated with her doctorate degree in just a few months, becoming the first woman in the U.S. to write “D.D.S.” after her name.
In 1867, she married James M. Taylor, a railway maintenance worker. With his wife’s encouragement, he also became a dentist, and together they built a successful practice in Kansas. Much of their work concerned dental care for women and children, although the woman affectionately known as “Dr. Lucy” did not have children of her own.
After her husband’s death and her own retirement, Lucy became involved in the woman’s suffrage and other political movements. By the time of her passing in 1910, a thousand women had become dentists in America. According to American Dental Association (ADA) statistics, by the end of 2010, there were 45,038 active licensed female dentists in the U.S.
That’s something to smile about.
Kathleen Guthrie is a Northern California–based freelance writer. She’s finding inspiration in the stories of many of our “cheroes” (heroes who are childfree) as we celebrate National Women’s History Month.