In 1867, Boston physician Nathan Cooley Keep, Class of 1827, realized his bold idea, one that would forever link dentistry and medicine—and raise the bar for dental education. In the mid-nineteenth century, dentistry was largely a trade that required no formal education, and its practitioners focused on extracting decayed and damaged teeth and plugging cavities. Keep, however, viewed oral health as vital to the health of the whole body and was determined to distinguish dentistry as a branch of medicine.
His determination paid off. On July 17, 1867, Harvard President Thomas Hill confirmed a resolution put forward by Keep and HMS faculty to establish Harvard Dental School, the nation’s first dental school connected to a university and its medical school. It was also the first U.S. dental school to confer the Dentariae Medicinae Doctoris degree, a designation that emphasized students’ medical training. Keep served as the dental school’s first dean, his name forever honored on the school’s shield by the central placement of a castle keep.
The five students who made up the school’s inaugural class included Robert Tanner Freeman, a son of former slaves. Keep had encouraged Freeman to apply to Harvard, and had, in fact, successfully petitioned for an end to the college’s exclusion of Blacks and other ethnic minorities. In 1869, Freeman became the first Black to graduate from Harvard Dental School and is believed to be the first Black in the country to earn a degree in dentistry. A year later, George Franklin Grant graduated from the dental school and went on to become the first Black faculty member of Harvard University and of the dental school.
Harvard Dental School, renamed Harvard School of Dental Medicine in 1940, quickly earned an international reputation for its high standards and thorough professional training in dentistry. Its faculty are part of the Faculty of Medicine, a united faculty from both schools, underscoring the important relationship between dentistry and medicine.
One hundred fifty years after its founding, the connection between the dental and the medical schools remains strong. Dental students spend the first year of their education attending the same classes as their medical school peers. Today’s students also learn how oral health and primary care integrate through rotations in the Teaching Practices of the Harvard Dental Center, the only clinical facility within a Harvard graduate school to provide direct patient care. True to Keep’s vision, the students gain an intellectual experience that reflects the biological underpinnings of oral and systemic health, the value of evidence-based research, and the importance of clinical study.
Image: Center for the History of Medicine at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine