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Home » About » Blog » Recap: Dental Health Contemporary Issues Discussion

Louis Miller, Curatorial Assistant at the Clements Library, summarizes our recent collaborative discussion program.

The Clements Library hosted its second ever Contemporary Issues Discussion event on October 30, 2019, in collaboration with the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies and the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry, thanks to the generous sponsorship of Frank and Judy Wilhelme. The purpose of these Contemporary Issues Discussions is to consider how an issue relevant to us in today’s world played out in the past, and to reflect on how our own personal experiences relate to that history.

The latest discussion focused on the topic of dental health, using a letter written in 1851 by teenage newlywed Phebe Jane Knapp (click this link to read the letter). Phebe married her husband Marquis in Crawford County, Ohio on August 17, 1850, at the age of 18. Not long after their marriage, they moved to the new state of Iowa to settle near Cedar Falls. The Clements Library holds four letters written by Phebe and Marquis to Phebe’s brother Benjamin Jaquith, not long after they arrived in Iowa. While these letters mostly discuss land claims and the flora and fauna of their new home, the letter used to guide our October 30 discussion gave us a glimpse into Phebe’s health, in particular her terrible tooth pain. It appears that Phebe suffered numerous ailments, and sadly, she died not long after she wrote this letter, on October 6, 1852, at the age of 20.

Three participants, invited from the broader University of Michigan community, started the lively and engaging conversation: Shannon O’Dell, director and curator of the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry; Dr. Robert Eber, Director of Clinical Research and Clinical Professor of Dentistry in the Department of Periodontics and Oral Medicine; and Carlos González-Cabezas, the Richard Christiansen Collegiate Professor of Oral and Craniofacial Global Initiatives, the Director of Global Oral Health Initiatives, and Associate Professor of Dentistry in the Department of Cariology, Restorative Sciences and Endodontics. All three provided fascinating insights into the history of dentistry, as well as current issues within the dental community. Hearing how they related and understood Phebe’s letter was very enlightening, especially as someone who does not have any educational background in dentistry. One observation that stood out to me was that when Phebe described in vivid detail choking on a piece of onion, an event that struck me as odd and unrelated to her dental pain, it actually could have been a symptom of serious dental disease. I was also struck by how many participants pointed out that while we would like to think dental issues such as Phebe’s have been consigned to the past, that is only the reality for those of us lucky enough to have dental insurance and live in communities where access to care is readily available.

“… made me weak, besides having the toothache all the time till I got to Uncle Sals, then I went to Lockport and had it taken out. It made my mouth sore so I could not eat with it for a day or two and when that got well my mouth got sore on the other side. It made every tooth loose and bled all the time. It did not affect the other side at all. Some days I could hardly get my teeth apart, my face pained me very bad all the time but I had it cured soon after I got here after being sore more than two weeks. It was not very funny I assure you…” – Phebe Jane Knapp

It is our opinion at the Clements that exploration of the past is possible by everyone, regardless of academic interest or affiliation. Institutions such as the Clements Library have materials that are not just interesting to historians and archivists. Events and discussions such as these emphasize that history is accessible, valuable, and interesting to anyone with a passion, whether they are dentists, doctors, scientists, engineers, artists, musicians, etc. We all have a way of connecting the past to our present.

We hope you will join us for future Contemporary Issues Discussions. Keep an eye out for our next event!


Louis Miller
Curatorial Assistant