A steady parade of distinguished, well-dressed men and women marched into a massive community center and joined the crowd already in the building making their ways from one elaborate exhibit to another. The attendance at the annual Ohio Mechanics’ Institute Fair in Cincinnati on September 19, 1860, was overwhelming. A small orchestra serenaded visitors as they wandered about examining displays of the various inventions and machinery that had received patents. Creators shared details of their devices with patrons and explained how the items would be of benefit. One of the presentations on dental mechanics, sponsored by Drs. Wardle and Doughty, featured an array of false teeth made by the dentists and one of their apprentices.
Several curious individuals inspected the objects, paying close attention to a set of teeth with a small placard sitting in front of it marked “Lot #45.” Next to the placard was a silver medal and a note from a fair judge that read “although inferior to its competitors [the] item was the work of a student [and is] worthy of a high degree of commendation.” Given the attitude society had about women in the medical profession at that time, the judges might not have been as complimentary if they’d known the teeth were made by Lucy Hobbs.
Lucy Hobbs’ journey to the Ohio Mechanics’ Institute Fair forward to eventually making history was a long, arduous one. Born in Franklin County, New York, on March 14, 1833, she was one of eleven children. Her mother died when Lucy was ten years old. Her father Benjamin remarried, but his second wife passed away shortly after their wedding. Unable to raise his children and hold down a job, Benjamin sent the youngsters to his friends and family to care for them. Lucy was sent to a residential school in New York called Franklin Academy. She was an exceptional student and graduated in the top of her class in 1849 at the age of sixteen.
Lucy embarked on a teaching career after leaving Franklin Academy and took a job at a school in Brooklyn, Michigan. Teaching was not the occupation she preferred, however. She wanted to be a doctor. Society frowned on women studying medicine. Male doctors, hoping to prevent the “fairer sex” from entering the field, publicly chastised women who had such desires. They often referred to them as “unnatural” and “lacking in the ability to know their place.” A protest resolution drafted by male students at Harvard University in 1850 summed up the position of many men on the subject.
“Resolved, That no woman of true delicacy would be willing in the presence of men to listen to the discussion of the subjects that necessarily come under the consideration of the student of medicine.
“Resolved, That we object to having the company of any female forced upon us, who is disposed to unsex herself, and to sacrifice her modesty by appearing with men in the medical lecture room.”
An article in an 1867 New York medical journal boldly announced that many male physicians in the East “hope to never see a day when the female character shall be so completely unsexed, as to fit it for the disgusting duties which imperatively devolve upon one who would attain proficiency, or even respectability in the healing art.”
Lucy met a physician in Brooklyn who didn’t believe women should be excluded from pursuing careers in medicine. She persuaded him to teach her physiology and anatomy. During that time, she learned of a medical school in the country that would accept women and decided to apply. Lucy applied to the Eclectic College of Medicine in Cincinnati, Ohio. In anticipation of being accepted, she packed her things and moved. When she arrived in Cincinnati, she was informed the school had decided to change its policy about allowing women to attend. Crestfallen, she sat outside the school entrance to contemplate what to do next. Charles A. Cleaveland, Professor of Materia Medica, Therapeutics, and Medical History at the college, saw her and offered a solution. He had reviewed her application and the letters of endorsement that accompanied it and was impressed. He agreed to give her private lessons in all the areas of medicine, including pharmaceutical and the treatment of disease which was his specialty. He suggested she change her field of interest to dentistry. He explained the profession was much more welcoming of women and that “a dentist need not make calls away from his office in all kinds of weather.” It didn’t take long for Lucy to consider the idea and agree with the professor’s reasoning.
Prior to the establishment of the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in 1840, most people believed training in that area wasn’t necessary. West of the Mississippi, the job of pulling teeth was relegated to a barber or a blacksmith. Pioneers traveling across the frontier by wagon train were convinced gargling with their own urine the first thing in the morning preserved the life of the teeth. Between so-called granny remedies and the idea that healthy teeth and gums weren’t essential, it was difficult for most to accept the value of a dentist. Trained doctors were slow to recognize the importance of a dentist and treated the profession with contempt. Lucy knew the lack of respect dentists received, and she looked forward to helping change potential patients’ minds.
The education Lucy received from Professor Cleaveland was important, but if she was to become a dentist she needed to study with a dentist. She visited several dental practices in the area asking the doctors there for an opportunity to learn the trade under their instruction. It wasn’t until she visited Dr. Jonathan Taft, dean of the Ohio College of Dental Surgery, that her request was granted. Dr. Taft agreed to train her for a three-month period. At the end of those three months, Lucy set out to find a doctor who would accept her as his apprentice. Dr. Samuel Wardle kindly welcomed her to his practice. Lucy later recalled how hopeful she was after talking with Dr. Wardle. “Suddenly, there appeared in the western horizon a cloud,” she wrote in her memoirs. “Not as big as a man’s hand, for it was the hand of a young girl, risen in appeal to man… For the opportunity to enter a profession where she could earn her bread, not alone by the sweat of her brow, but by the use of her brain also. The cloud though small was portentous. It struck terror into the hearts of the community, especially the male portion of it. All innovations cause commotion. This was no exception. People were amazed when they learned that a young girl had so far forgotten her womanhood as to want to study dentistry.”
Dr. Wardle taught Lucy all the steps of mechanical and operative dentistry. She learned to pull teeth and to fashion false teeth from rocks. In addition to continued education in anatomy and physiology, she studied the biological sciences, hygiene, and anesthesia. Her apprentice position wasn’t a paid position. Lucy earned her living working in the evenings as a seamstress.
In March 1861, Lucy applied to the Ohio College of Dental Surgery and was promptly rejected for the same reason she was turned away from medical school – she was a woman.
At the urging of Dr. Wardle, Lucy temporarily abandoned the thought of getting a dental degree and opened her own dental office in Cincinnati. The nation was on the brink of a Civil War, and unrest in the city prompted her to close the business within the first week. She decided to travel west to the town of Bellevue, Iowa. Hundreds of men were leaving the area to fight for the Union, but those who remained for one reason or another had no problem seeing a woman dentist or having their wives, mothers, sisters, and children use her services when needed. Lucy’s practice was a success.
After a year in Bellevue, having gained the experience in the profession she craved and saving $100, Lucy moved to McGregor, Iowa, where she hoped her practice would do even better. Her dental practice thrived in the new location. By the end of 1862, she’d made a profit of more than $2,500 and was kindly referred to as the “woman who pulled teeth.”
Lucy’s reputation as a caring and qualified dentist reached every part of the state. One of the people who had heard of McGregor’s lady dentist was Dr. Luman Church Ingersoll, president of the Iowa State Dental Society. He invited her to attend their annual convention scheduled to be held in July 1865. Lucy was apprehensive at first. The opposition she’d experienced from the bulk of the men in the profession led her to imagine the worst. Ultimately, she agreed to travel to Dubuque and meet with Dr. Ingersoll and the other attendees. At the least, she thought she might be able to encourage them to recognize the fact that women were capable of doing the work of a dentist.
Much to her surprise, her fellow dentists were welcoming and inquisitive about her background. During their regular meeting, they elected Lucy as a member of the society. Among those present who approved such an action was one of her mentors, Dr. Jonathan Taft. Dr. Ingersoll proposed a resolution in support of the position taken by the Iowa State Dental Society in accepting a woman dentist to its membership
“Whereas, The Iowa State Dental Society has, without a precedent, elected to membership a lady practitioner of dentistry, and
“Whereas, It is due to her to know that the unanimous vote by which she was elected was not simply a formal vote, and
“Whereas, It is due to the profession at large, that we make a formal declaration concerning the position we have assumed in our action, therefore
“Resolved, That we most cordially welcome Miss Lucy B. Hobbs, of McGregor, to our number, and to our professional pursuits, trials, aims and successes.
“Resolved, that the profession of dentistry, involving, as it does, the vital interest of humanity, in the relief of human suffering, and the perpetuation of the comforts and enjoyments of life in civilized and refined society, has nothing in its pursuits foreign to the instincts of women, and, on the other hand, presents in almost every applicant for operations, a subject requiring a kind and benevolent consideration of the most refined and womanly nature.”
Lucy was honored and grateful to become a member of the Society. She thanked the men for their kindness. She deemed the reception she had received ample recompense for all the rebuffs and discouragements she had encountered during the past four years while fighting her way into the field and expressed her determination to make her mark in the profession, so that they would never regret the step they had taken.
Convinced more should be done to allow women to enter the field, members of the society prevailed upon Dr. Taft to use his influence at the Ohio College of Dental Surgery to revisit Lucy’s application to the school. The doctor agreed. Lucy was accepted and admitted to the institution in November 1865. Because of the years she spent being personally trained for the profession by respected dentists and the practical experience on the job she received, she was required to attend only one session. When Lucy received her degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery on February 21, 1866, she became the first woman in the world to earn that distinction.
“She was a woman of great energy and perseverance, studious in her habits, modes and unassuming; she had the respect and kind regard of every member of the class and faculty,” Professor Jonathan Taft noted about Lucy. “As an operator she was not surpassed by her associates. Her opinion was asked, and her assistance sought in difficult cases, almost daily by her fellow students. And though the class of which she was a member was one of the largest ever in attendance, it excelled all previous ones in good order and decorum – a condition largely due to the presence of a lady. In the final examination, she was second to none.”
Lucy concluded the four-month-long session with exceptional grades and praise for her construction of a set of false, porcelain teeth. Her thesis was on dental science.
Shortly after graduating from college, Lucy moved her practice to Chicago. The March 29, 1866, edition of the Charles City Intelligencer included an article about the accomplished doctor’s new venture.
“Miss L. B. Hobbs, the celebrated lady dentist, who for several years practiced dentistry with marked success at McGregor, has removed to Chicago and opened an office at 93 Washington street where she will be happy to wait upon her Iowa friends and all others who may desire her professional services,” the announcement read. “Miss Hobbs graduated at a Cincinnati college after having taken regular courses of study in anatomy and dental surgery. We have no doubt she will ere long become the most popular dentist in Chicago, and we predict for her both fame and fortune.”
Dr. Hobbs was elected to the Illinois State Dental Society in May 1866 and two months later traveled back to Iowa to speak at the Iowa State Dental Society conference. In December of the same year, a paper she had presented to the state dental association was printed in the magazine Dental Times. Lucy’s paper dealt with the uses of mallet pressure, rather than hand pressure, in the filling of cavities.
“The Mallet System” has become the prevailing system among the best operators,” Dr. Hobbs wrote. “It needs but a few facts to show to every thinking mind, that it is the best system yet known to the profession for all ordinary fillings, as very few but can be better and more easily condensed than by hand pressure. No proof is necessary to show that anyone can do better work, when he can give all his attention to the placing of the gold in the cavity, stand easy and natural, and have an assistant do the condensing.
“In the old way, the operator was all worn out with a few fillings. The position was such that in most cases the strength could not be applied in the right direction, but at a great disadvantage to the operator, so that after a very few years of practice an operator was worn out ere he had arrived at any degree of perfection. Anyone that has tried both systems, will admit that more gold can be condensed in a cavity, and of course make better filling, as it is more solid, than in any other way, being driven firmly to place by the mallet, it forms one solid mass.
“Let the gold be used in any form you choose. It can be better condensed with the mallet than with the hand. The human operator will give it a fair trial. For there are none but are well aware that it requires strong nerves to endure the hand pressure, without some manifestation of suffering, but with the mallet, I have known the patient to sleep, when the operation was long, thus showing that it was not very unpleasant.”
During her time in Chicago, Lucy met a Civil War veteran named James Myrle Taylor. He worked for the Chicago and North Western Railway in the maintenance shop. The couple were married in 1867, and soon after, James became Lucy’s apprentice. In December 1867, the newlyweds moved to Lawrence, Kansas. The city was flush with an infusion of new residents, and dentists were in demand. James transitioned from apprentice to dentist, and the Taylors operated their lucrative practice together. Lucy took the women and children patients while James dealt with the men.
Both doctors had busy lives outside their work. They were involved in various charitable organizations and active in the state dental society. They lived in a magnificent home with elaborate fountains and lush gardens where numerous weddings and anniversary celebrations were often held.
Dr. James Taylor passed away on December 14, 1886, after suffering from a long illness. Dr. Lucy Hobbs Taylor continued to see patients but spent the majority of her time with civic activities, including fighting for the cause of women’s suffrage.
Lucy suffered a paralytic stroke on August 17, 1910. Friends found her on the floor of one of the rooms of her home, and a doctor was immediately called to the scene. Her recovery was slow, and her entire right side was paralyzed, but physicians believed her condition would improve with time. Sadly, Dr. Taylor never overcame the effects of the stroke and died following a cerebral hemorrhage on October 3, 1910, at the age of seventy-seven.
Historical markers honoring Dr. Lucy Hobbs Taylor have been erected at her place of birth in Franklin County, New York, and in Lawrence, Kansas, where she practiced dentistry for more than thirty years.
At the time of Dr. Taylor’s death, there were more than a thousand women dentists practicing in the United States.