Editor’s note: Here is the first in our series “The History of Women in Dentistry,” featuring Emeline Roberts Jones.
Emeline Roberts Jones and Women in U.S. Dentistry
Dentistry is one of the world’s oldest medical professions, with some historians tracing it back to 7000 B.C. It wasn’t until 1523, however, that women were even remotely connected to the field.
That year, Dutch engraver Lucas Van Leyden completed a copper engraving of a traveling dentist treating a suffering patient. Standing in the background was a female assistant, with what looks like extra dental tools attached to her belt. She observed the procedure but did not participate.
Little had changed by 1854, when 18-year-old Emeline Roberts married Connecticut dentist Dr. Daniel Jones. Born in Danielsonville, Connecticut, in 1836, she had a bright and inquisitive mind that was soon captivated by her husband’s profession.
Dentistry was on the verge of becoming a trained profession when Emeline set her sights on a career. The country’s first dental school, the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, had been established in 1840 and in 1841 Alabama became the first state to regulate dentistry.
Although dentists did not require a degree until 1915, there was one socially-imposed limitation: dentistry was for men only. Although he loved and respected his wife, Dr. Jones shared the belief that dentistry was not a suitable profession for women.
Refusing to be deterred, Emeline watched him work for a while. Then she collected teeth that he had extracted and discarded and practiced filling them. Once she had filled a two-quart jar with samples of her work, she showed them to her husband, who was impressed enough to reluctantly allow her to work on some of his patients. Although influenced by convention, he also realized that his wife had genuine talent.
Encouraged, Emeline began studying anatomy and related subjects to deepen her scientific knowledge. By 1859, four years after she began practicing dentistry, she had become proficient enough to transition to full-fledged partner at her husband’s practice. Her reputation as a skilled dental practitioner grew.
In 1864, Daniel Jones died. Emeline and their two small children were not the only ones who mourned. According to the New Haven Daily Nutmeg, Dr. Jones was an exceptionally skilled dentist who was “widely known and beloved outside his profession, especially as a philanthropist.”
Emeline was now a widow with two young children, but fortunately, she had something that most American women didn’t have in 1864: a career that left her self-sufficient.
Although the Dental Times editor, Dr. George Baker, wrote in 1865 that “the very form and structure of woman” made her unfit for the rigors of dental surgery, Emeline Roberts was already proving him wrong by traveling throughout eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island with her portable dentist’s chair.
In 1876 she opened her own office at 746 Chapel Street in New Haven, Connecticut. She was soon joined by her son, Daniel, who had earned a DDS from Harvard Dental School and an MD from Yale. In 1893, she became the 18th dentist to be licensed in the state.
Before retiring in 1915, Emeline enjoyed multiple awards and distinctions. In 1883 she was elected to the Connecticut State Dental Society. At the World’s Columbian Dental Conference in 1893, she served on the Woman’s Advisory Council. In 1914, one year before retiring at the age of 79, she became an honorary member of the National Dental Association.
Emeline Roberts Jones died in 1916 at the age of 80. In 1994 she was posthumously inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.
By choosing to blaze a trail instead of following a path, Emeline opened the dentistry profession to women. According to the American Dental Association, in 2015 48.8% of first-year dental students across the U.S. were female. She would definitely have approved.