Events of June 1866 changed dentistry in Ohio forever

In 1865, as the American Civil War wound down, some Ohio dentists thought that it was time to form a statewide dental society to organize and promote the dental profession and to protect the citizens from “quacks” and other unscrupulous providers of dental services.

A call was issued to as many of the approximately 500 dentists in Ohio as could be identified to assemble for a meeting dedicated to the formation of a state dental society. The call stated:

“The entire dental profession of the state of Ohio is hereby cordially invited to meet in mass convention in the city of Columbus … on Tuesday and Wednesday, the 26th and 27th of June, 1866, to form a state dental society, and to devise and adopt such measures as tend to elevate and advance the interests of the profession.”

Forty-one dentists showed up in Columbus near the end of June 1866 to join together to form a state dental society designed to promote and advance the relatively new profession of dentistry. Cleveland’s first dentist, Dr. Benjamin Strickland, presided over the organizational meeting as chairman, and, as one of the first orders of business, a committee was appointed to devise a constitution and bylaws and present them to the entire group.

By the end of the first day, the group had approved a constitution and bylaws, which declared that the association “shall be called the Ohio State Dental Society” and that its “aims and purposes” were:

  • “mutual fellowship and recognition,”
  • “the promotion of honor, usefulness and interests of the profession,”
  • “the advancement and cultivation of professional science and literature,”
  • “the encouragement of a more thorough professional education,” and
  • “the protection of the public.”

The constitution provided for four standing committees: an executive committee, and committees on membership, publications, and ethics. The officers were to be “a president, two vice presidents, a corresponding secretary, a recording secretary and a treasurer, with each being elected annually by a majority.”

A code of ethics was then drafted and presented to the entire group on the second day of the meeting and unanimously approved. This new code of ethics indicated that dentists should treat patients with respect, earning their confidence by being both “firm” as well as “kind and sympathizing” to them. The code directed dentists to show “respect” to their fellow dentists as well and cautioned against making “disparaging” remarks about, or claims of superiority over, other dentists. The code specifically limited a dentist’s professional scope to the treatment of “diseases of dental organs and the mouth” and admonished that dentists must recognize the “superiority” of physicians over general health and that physicians should recognize the superiority of a dentist’s knowledge of the mouth. The code also directed that dentists had a duty to “enlighten and warn” the public about the dangers of “quacks.”

According to reports written at the time, it was believed that this may have been the first written code of ethics in dentistry as it preceded the code of the American Dental Association by several months. At the next annual meeting of the Ohio State Dental Society in January 1867, the Committee on Ethics had “no special report to make” because “so far as the committee was aware all the members of the society have conformed with the spirit of the code.” The society eventually adopted the ADA’s code as its own.

The participants at the founding meeting of the Ohio State Dental Society in 1866 included many existing and future luminaries and leaders in the dental profession. Dr. George Watt from Xenia was elected as the first president of the Ohio State Dental Society at that first meeting. Watt had previously served as president of the American Dental Association (known as the American Dental Convention at the time) in 1863 and participated in the founding meeting of the ADA in Niagara Falls, New York, in 1859.

Dr. George Keely from Oxford was elected as the first vice president of the Ohio State Dental Society in 1866. Keely also attended the founding meeting of the ADA and was subsequently elected president of the Ohio State Dental Society in 1871 and ADA president in 1877. Dr. Henry A. Smith from Cincinnati was elected as the Ohio State Dental Society’s Recording Secretary at the initial meeting in 1866 and president in 1874. Smith was also at the founding meeting of the ADA in 1859 and was elected ADA president in 1882.

Jonathan Taft, who served on the committees that drafted the code of ethics and the constitution and bylaws in 1866, was elected president of the Ohio State Dental Society the following year. Taft also attended the founding meeting of the ADA and was subsequently elected ADA president in 1869.

It was fortunate that the Ohio State Dental Society had so many experienced organizational leaders because the new society and fledgling profession faced many challenges in those early days. I will discuss some of those challenges and how the Ohio State Dental Society dealt with them in a future column as we continue to commemorate the ODA’s 150th anniversary.