The 'Central Idea' - Looking Back At Our First 125 Years

The 'Central Idea' - Looking back at our first 125 years

School of Dentistry 125th anniversary

October 2013 marks the 125th anniversary of the founding of the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry. In this article, we look back over a remarkable history and share just some of the entertaining milestones and dramatic changes of those years. Information about our first century is adapted from the school’s 1988 publication Our First Century of Excellence (1888-1988), as well as A History of the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry: 1888-1988 by Dr. Mellor Holland. We also highlight some of the transformative initiatives of the school’s more recent years, as recorded in school documents and other historical sources.

Edith White and Gainsford Ridgeway were among the first class of 22 students to enroll in the University of Minnesota College of Dentistry in October 1888. The University had taken over the dental education program from a proprietary dental and medical school, and a faculty of four taught these new dental students how to run a “dental engine” (a.k.a., a drill) powered with a foot pedal, how to make their own instruments, and about the most current knowledge of oral health.

It’s difficult today to imagine just how revolutionary it was for Edith and Gainsford to study dentistry in a university setting, and as a specialty of medicine. At the time, there were three pathways to dental education: apprenticeships, proprietary schools, and university-based dental colleges. Until 1840 and the establishment of the first proprietary school in Baltimore, most dentists learned as an apprentice, an approach to education that also was common to medicine and law. Apprenticeships were probably a step-up from the occasional practitioners who attended to dental problems without any training––the tinsmiths, silversmiths and goldsmiths (think Paul Revere), and barbers. But the apprenticeship was a private and unregulated education, dependent upon a mentor’s ability and experience. There was little or no attention to the principles of anatomy, psychology and pathology, and mentors were as likely to guard ideas and helpful procedures as a way of minimizing competition. The apprenticeship did little to legitimize or further the profession, and an organized campaign to elevate dentistry as a healing art was organized.

Minnesota’s first propriety school made the scene in 1883. Proprietary schools were an attempt to introduce a formal education to the profession, but clinical training was not widely included and the schools were dependent upon student fees and operated to make a profit for their owners. Eventually, apprenticeships disappeared and many proprietary schools were transformed into university programs, as occurred in Minnesota with the formation of the University of Minnesota Department of Medicine, which included three colleges: The Colleges of Dentistry, Medicine and Surgery, and Homeopathic Medicine and Surgery.

The University founded its College of Dentistry on the principles of science and medicine. According to the 1894 College of Dentistry Bulletin “the central idea upon which this institution was founded is that dentistry is a branch of the healing art, and as such should be practiced as a specialty of medicine.”


When it came to admissions requirements, the goals were lofty but the earliest standards were a bit less so. Initially, only “properly certified marks from some school,” were required to enter dental school. But the school quickly raised its standards. “We sift out severely,” said William Sudduth, the school’s first dean (1892-1895). Within the first decade, the College’s standards were reputed to be higher than those of most other schools.

By 1894, students were devoting 2,000 hours of their three-year curriculum to removable prosthodontics. Also in 1894, fixed prosthodontics came into its own. The remainder of the time spent in dental courses was principally devoted to the all-inclusive operative dentistry. Of course, dentists needed the tools to perform these procedures, so they learned vice, forge and machine work, and the principles of foundry work in order to manufacture their own steel instruments and brass impression trays. For these earliest University of Minnesota dental students, it was the highest of high-tech when, in about 1901, X-rays became available as a diagnostic tool and when “Uses of Electricity” was added to the curriculum in 1902. Over the next two decades, more courses were added, including required military training during the war years.

To complement the work of dental students, a two-year course in dental hygiene was added in 1920. In 1953, a program to educate dental assistants was created and continued for 30 years.

Eventually, the dental course was expanded to four years. A master of science degree program and a post-D.D.S.-Ph.D. program were introduced and, later, a combined D.D.S.-M.S.D.-Ph.D. program was added to foster the development of researchers and teachers. By 1988, a full range of graduate specialty programs was available to students.

Throughout the years, course content and teaching methodologies kept current with the explosion of knowledge. As restorative disciplines were revolutionized with the advent of the air turbine handpiece, composite resins, bonding and a host of related materials and techniques, course content adapted. Courses in practice management, ethics, and public health were introduced. Clinics provided high quality, low-cost comprehensive care to thousands of patients throughout the region. And studies in the prevention and treatment of oral disease expanded, exemplifying once again the “central idea” of science-based dentistry.

The Facilities

The College of Dentistry would turn 25 years old before it gained its own home in the University. From 1888-1913, dentistry shared housing with others––the Colleges of Medicine and Surgery, Homeopathic Medicine and Surgery, and Pharmacy. By 1890, a cramped Department of Medicine prompted construction of the Medical Chemistry Building and Medical Hall, later named Millard Hall, which housed the dental college until a 1912 fire. After finishing the academic year in temporary space, the College found a home in the Laboratory of Medical Sciences Building, sharing space with the College of Pharmacy for one year before taking sole possession in 1913-1932. The building was re-named the Dental Building in 1915.

In the 1920s, pressure for expansion prompted proposals for a medical complex to be coordinated architecturally by Cass Gilbert, who designed the Mall of the University Campus and the St. Paul Capitol Building. When plans fell through, the College sought its own funding, with help from the Minnesota State Dental Association as a legislative advocate. The legislature appropriated funds, construction began in August 1931, and 14 months later the College moved into the new Medical Science Building (later renamed Owre Hall) in time for the start of fall classes in 1932. It moved again to Moos Tower in 1976 where it remains today as the 19-story legacy of its seventh permanent dean, Erwin Schaffer, who rallied University and legislative leaders behind the new facility.


According to the School’s 1988 centennial publication Our First Century of Excellence, “Two views were visible to researchers working on the top floors of Moos Tower. Through the window, the city below stretched out to the horizon and the world beyond. Through other windows––such as the microscope, the test tube and the computer screen––the scientists were privy to the intricacies and interplay of living organisms.”

As early as 1913, funding for research in oral pathology and bacteriology came from the National Dental Association. In the 1920s, important studies on dental caries laid the groundwork for later fluoride research that attracted four decades of funding from the National Institutes of Health. These studies, along with other research, earned the school an international reputation for its contribution to the understanding of fluoride and decay prevention, microbiology, and oral facial genetic anomalies, among other areas.

In 1948, two Minnesotans––an alumnus and a faculty member––were at the side of Harry Truman when he signed the Dental Research Act which helped launch the National Institute of Dental Research as a branch of the National Institutes of Health. In those years, Minnesota’s research funding reflected the national picture. In the 1950s, federal money allowed the school to spend roughly $30,000 per fiscal year on dental research. From 1982 to 1987, the amount spent on dental research at Minnesota ranged from $1.5 to $2 million per fiscal year.

The advanced education programs that the school initiated in the 1950s and 1960s attracted and developed dental researchers and faculty who have served throughout the world. The Summer Research Fellowship Program was established at about this time, pairing students with faculty mentors. The nation’s first cariology training program was established in 1975. The school formed the Dental Research Institute in 1987 “to coordinate the application of high technology to problems in oral health.” School researchers were early into robotics, developing an artificial mouth (ART) for use in developing and testing new dental materials. The Clinical Research Center for Periodontal Diseases came into being, a collaborative effort with two international corporations. A national center for biomaterials testing and development was established with corporate support from founding member 3M.

The School also launched a graduate placement and practice analysis program. In addition, the concept of interdisciplinary research and practice took root, and in 1980 the School started the country’s first interdisciplinary craniofacial pain clinic. By 1988, the School had garnered a reputation in many areas of research including prevention of periodontal disease, pain control, oral cancer, and the clinical treatment of maxillofacial development defects.


Volunteerism was a part of the dental school’s earliest days when Edith White and classmates provided free dental care in the Seven Corners area of Minneapolis just blocks from campus. Alfred Owre, the school’s visionary dean (1905-1927), placed special emphasis on the social responsibility of dentists. During his tenure, the School increased its efforts to share knowledge and resources with people from other lands. As its reputation grew, students came from as far away as Norway and China to study in Minnesota.

Faculty in oral pathology and oral surgery participated in oral cancer detection clinics conducted in Minnesota from 1957 to 1962, during which time 32,391 people received free screenings for oral cancer at 17 clinics. A rural health program started in 1968. From 1968-78, students treated patients in the Cambridge State Hospital. In 1969, students started a free dental clinic at the Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul, treating patients under the supervision of school faculty and area dentists with appointments as school consultants. Some students also found time in 1970-71 to teach reading skills to children with learning disabilities. Later, a team of volunteer students and faculty traveled to Jamaica for one- or two-week visits where they extracted teeth and provided preventive services in remote areas. And in 1985, spearheaded by a student, the school received a grant to teach students how to communicate and treat people who are hearing impaired.

School faculty, too, were often asked to share their knowledge and advice, traveling to many parts of the world to provide dental care, lecture and to study. In 1967, the William F. Lasby Visiting Professorship was established thanks to a bequest from his daughter’s estate. The Lasby professorship exists to this day and supports the visit of a scholar, usually from another country on a rotating, annual basis. In 1969 an international exchange program for undergraduate dental students welcomed eight students from Guatemala City’s dental school. The program grew to include annual exchanges of students from Denmark, Norway, West Germany, and Peru. Minnesota students, as well as faculty, also participated in volunteer missions to other countries.


The first 100 years of dentistry at the University of Minnesota were marked by education, research and service advances well beyond the capacity of Edith White, Gainsford Ridgeway and their classmates to imagine. As studies in the prevention and treatment of oral disease expanded, so, too, did the School of Dentistry evolve, retaining always the pioneering spirit that launched its inaugural class in 1888. That spirit continues to this day, as evidenced by the transformative initiatives that punctuate the first 25 years of the School’s second century of excellence. (For a summary of the last 25 years, click here.)

Today, the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry is the state’s only dental school and the only dental school in the northern tier of states between Wisconsin and the Pacific Northwest. In that role it serves as a regional resource to five states for dental education, consulting services, patient treatment, and ongoing continuing dental education.

The School educates 74% of the state’s general dentists, as well as dental hygienists, dental therapists, dental educators, research scientists, and practitioners in six ADA-recognized specialties: endodontics, oral and maxillofacial surgery, orthodontics, pediatric dentistry, periodontology and prosthodontics. There are advanced education programs in dental hygiene, oral health for seniors, oral biology, and in TMD and orofacial pain. School faculty provide academic leadership of a general practice residency program (in partnership with University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, and University of Minnesota Physicians); graduates of international dental schools (non-Canadian) who wish to practice in the United States train here, as well. A novel, multi-disciplinary dentist-scientist training program rounds out the educational offerings. Some 7,000 dental professionals return to the School annually for continuing dental education.

In 2012, there were 107,860 patient visits to the School’s on-campus clinics and 38,000 visits at 12 Outreach sites around the state and region. And the School’s diversified research program––with identified strengths in bone biology and craniofacial development; biomaterials/biomechanics; oral health disparities and community health; oral infections microbiology; oral inflammation and cancer; oral pain and neuroscience––generates funding support from ten different NIH institutes and centers.

Above all, the School’s graduates are leaders, active in their professions and pioneers in new traditions. Committed always to that “central idea” of science-based dentistry as a healing art, they care for patients and improve the oral health of their communities. Some have also gone on to co-invent the Sonicare toothbrush, and to serve in Congress, as president of the American Dental Association, and as deans of dental schools as far away as China. As they have from the beginning, the School’s graduates extend the reach of the University of Minnesota into clinical practice, classrooms and research labs across the state and beyond, and help the School of Dentistry to fulfill its mission of education, research and service in support of the common good.

The story originally appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of Dentistry magazine. 

For more on the School of Dentistry's 125th Anniversary

Take a look back at the achievements and successes of the School of Dentistry throughout its 125-year history.

The School of Dentistry launched a number of transformative initiatives in the first 25 years of its second century of service and education.

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