7 Black Pioneers in the Dental Industry

February 16, 2024 blog01

As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s imperative to honor the contributions that Black people have made in dentistry to support and inspire current and future dental professionals while overcoming racial prejudice.  

John S. Rock (1825-1866) 


Image from battlefields.org 

John S. Rock was a teacher in Salem, New Jersey who aspired to go to medical school. He was denied admission because of his race and began apprenticing under a local dentist.  

After completing his apprenticeship, Dr. Rock moved to Philadelphia and opened his own practice and became known for his ability to create false teeth. He won a medal in 1851 for a set of silver teeth he created. 

Dr. Rock never gave up on his dream of becoming a doctor. He eventually began attending medical lectures at American Medical College and received his medical degree in 1852. Afterwards, Dr. Rock opened a medical and dental practice in Boston, where most of his patients were Black Americans who had escaped slavery and were passing through Boston on their way to Canada.  

Dr. Rock was an abolitionist and regularly spoke out against slavery and the treatment of Black people and petitioned city officials to remove the word “colored” from voting and tax lists. 

Extremely educated, Dr. Rock also became an attorney, advocating for the rights of Black Americans and representing many who had escaped slavery. On February 1, 1865, he was admitted to the bar of the United States Supreme Court, allowing him to argue cases before the highest court in the country.  

Robert Tanner Freeman (1846-1873) 


Public Domain Image from Harvard Medical Library 

Robert Tanner Freeman is the first professionally trained Black dentist in the United States.  

Dr. Freeman befriended Henry Bliss Noble, a white dentist, and worked as his apprentice from childhood into early adulthood. Dr. Noble encouraged Dr. Freeman to apply to dental schools, including Harvard Dental School.  

Dr. Freeman was rejected from all schools that he applied to, but a petition by Dean Nathan Cooley Keep at Harvard University was kickstarted to put an end to the school’s exclusion of Black students, and Dr. Freeman was accepted into Harvard Dental School’s inaugural class in 1867 at 21 years old. 

After graduating, Dr. Freeman opened his first practice in Washington, D.C. and mentored Black youths who were interested in the dental field. Although he passed away only four years later, his legacy lives on through the National Dental Association.  

The National Dental Association is an all-Black dental group that aims to provide dental treatment and education to the impoverished, the disabled, people of color, and those who may not seek dental care due to their age. The Robert T. Freeman Dental Society was founded as a predecessor to the National Dental Association.  

George Franklin Grant (1847-1910) 


Public Domain Image 

George Franklin Grant is the first Black professor at Harvard and served in the School of Mechanical Dentistry.  

When Dr. Grant was a teenager, he worked for a local dentist as an errand boy and soon became a lab assistant.  

The dentist, Albert Smith, encouraged Dr. Grant to pursue a career in dentistry. Dr. Grant joined Dr. Freeman at Harvard University to become one of the first Black students at Harvard Dental School.  

After graduating, Dr. Grant became the first Black faculty member at Harvard, serving in the School of Mechanical Dentistry for 19 years. During his tenure, he specialized in treating patients with congenital cleft palates, and patented the oblate palate, a prosthetic that allowed patients to speak more normally.  

Dr. Grant was a founding member and president of the Harvard Odontological Society and was elected President of the Harvard Dental Association in 1881.  

Dr. Grant’s inventions surpassed the dentistry realm, as he also patented a golf tee whittled from wood and capped with gutta-percha.  

Charles Edin Bentley (1859-1929) 


Image Courtesy of Wikipedia 

Charles Edwin Bentley is referred to in his biography as the “Father of the Oral Hygiene Movement.” 

A graduate of the Chicago College of Dental Surgery, Dr. Bentley advocated for the education on the importance of oral hygiene. He founded and was the first president of the Odontographic Society, which became the largest local dental society in the world and merged into the Chicago Dental Society. 

He was also a founder of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization that opposed racial segregation and disenfranchisement, and a leader in the Chicago Branch of the NAACP.  

Dr. Bentley advocated for educating the public on the importance of oral health through lectures, written materials and offering dental exams to students in public schools and free clinics to provide access to dental care for those who may not have it.  

Due to Dr. Bentley’s persistence, the Odontographic Society launched an investigation into the oral health of public school children and published a booklet titled “The Care of the Mouth” with facts about oral hygiene. 

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins (1867-1953) 

Public Domain Image 

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins is the first Black female dentist.  

In high school, Dr. Gray worked part-time in Jonathan and William Taft’s dental office, where she became interested in a career in dentistry.  

 Dr. Gray’s experience in her part-time position allowed her to pass the entrance exam into the University of Michigan, and she became the first Black woman to graduate with a Doctor of Dental Surgery in the United States.  

After graduation, Dr. Gray opened a private dental practice in Cincinnati, Ohio. She later met her first husband and moved to Chicago, Illinois, becoming the first Black person to practice dentistry in Chicago. 

Roscoe F. Lee (1898-1956) 


Image from Community Care College 

Roscoe F. Lee is the first Black American to be certified as a diplomate of the American Board of Oral Surgery, dentistry’s first and one of its most prestigious specialty boards. 

Dr. Lee graduated from Howard University College of Dentistry and went into private practice. However, he soon desired to specialize in oral surgery and joined the staff at Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital). He then was appointed Chief of Staff for the hospital’s new Oral Surgery Department. 

Dr. Lee was also involved in the Robert T. Freeman Dental Society and strongly advocated for racial integration in dentistry. 

Jeanne Craig Sinkford (1933- ) 


Image from Howard University 

Jeanne Craig Sinkford was appointed dean of Howard University in 1975, becoming the first female dean of any dental school in the United States. 

After graduating from Howard University, Dr. Sinkford taught prosthodontics while maintaining a part-time practice. Once she was dean, Jeanne dedicated her life to supporting the advancement of women and minorities in the dental profession.  

After retiring as dean, Dr. Sinkford was involved with the American Dental Education Association, creating numerous opportunities for women and minorities to advance their dental careers. 


Robert Tanner Freeman: Robert Tanner Freeman (1846-1873) • (blackpast.org) 

George Franklin Grant: George Franklin Grant (1847-1910) • (blackpast.org)

Charles Edin Bentley: How Five Black Dentists Influenced the Future of Dentistry | Benevis, February Black History Month – Dental Specialists | Dental (communitycarecollege.edu), Charles Edwin Bentley - Wikipedia 

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins: Ida Gray Nelson Rollins (1867-1953) • (blackpast.org

Roscoe F. Lee: jnma00264-0103.pdf (nih.gov), February Black History Month – Dental Specialists | Dental (communitycarecollege.edu

John S. Rock: John S. Rock: Teacher, Doctor, Dentist, Abolitionist, Lawyer – National Black Home Educators (nbhe.net

Jeanne Craig Sinkford: Howard University Dentistry Trailblazer Dr. Jeanne Sinkford Receives American College of Dentists Highest Award | The Dig at Howard University, Honoring the Contributions of Black Americans in Dentistry – Mortenson Dental Partners 

About The Author

Hannah-Bucciarelli-1-1.jpgHannah Bucciarelli

Komet USA’s Content Marketing Specialist
Hannah Bucciarelli has been the content marketing specialist at Komet USA since 2021. She focuses on copywriting, social media management and content management in the dental industry.
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