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Dr. Chapin Harris: A True Dental Pioneer

Written by Adam Zewe

One man's passion about dentistry helped establish the profession we know today. Dr. Chapin Aaron Harris solidified his place in history as one of the founders of the first dental school in the world, the University of Maryland School of Dentistry (UMSOD). More than 150 years after his death, the dental profession still owes much to this true pioneer.

Dr. Harris was born on May 6, 1806 in the village of Pompey in upstate New York. At age 17, he began working in the medical office of his brother, Dr. John Harris. Chapin immersed himself in the study of medicine and developed strong practical skills by assisting his brother. Though he did not attend college, he earned his medical license one year later in 1824. Dentistry immediately appealed to him and, after relocating to Fredericksburg, Va., he established a full-time dental practice in 1828. By the early 1830s, Dr. Harris had come to Baltimore, where he studied dentistry under Dr. Horace Henry Hayden.

Unsatisfied by the amount of dental literature available, Dr. Harris published his first book, "The Dental Art, a Practical Treatise on Dental Surgery," in 1839. It would become the most widely used dental textbook of the 19th century. A year later, he also established the world's first dental periodical, the "American Journal of Dental Science," and served as the first editor.

He considered dentistry to be firmly rooted in science, and was determined that it should be taught as a health profession. Dr. Harris helped organize a group of like-minded dentists who sought to establish a dental training school within the University of Maryland School of Medicine. However, faculty members at the School of Medicine rejected the idea. Undaunted, Dr. Harris and his collaborators took their plans to New York City in an attempt to establish a dental school there. They failed again, yet they managed to raise $1,300 from prominent New York dentists.

After returning to Baltimore, Dr. Harris and his colleagues decided to establish a separate dental school in the city. Throughout the winter of 1839-1840, Dr. Harris went door to door and convinced hundreds of Maryland residents to sign a petition asking the state legislature to charter a dental school. The legislature granted the charter and the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, which would become UMSOD, was established in 1840.

Dr. Harris served as the school's first dean and a professor of dentistry. After Dr. Hayden's death in 1844, he became the second president of the college. Even after the school was established, Dr. Harris still hoped that it would be incorporated into the School of Medicine. He continued to teach, as well as write and publish books and articles about dentistry, until his death on Sept. 29, 1860. Many of his peers say this tireless advocate for dentistry died of overwork.

Dr. Philip Austen, then dean of the school, eulogized Dr. Harris at a faculty meeting. "That as the projector of collegiate dental education and the laborious and successful founder of this college, Dr. Harris deserved the highest regards of the profession and the gratitude of the public. It may be said of him that he united dental surgery to science, and raised the practice of it to the worth and respectability of a profession."

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