Dr. Samuel D. Harris
Have you noticed that name that precedes “National Museum of Dentistry” on just about every official and unofficial form of public outreach from the museum? Although his name in the museum’s title was a direct result of a million dollar donation during the founding of the museum, Dr. Harris’s legacy is not only something the museum is proud to be associated with, but it is also very fitting to what the museum embodies and strives to achieve.
Not to be confused with Chapin A. Harris, the co-founder of the first dental school, professional society, and professional journal, Dr. Samuel D. Harris merits his own recognition for a lifetime of advancing pediatric oral health and the field’s professional endeavors.
His story starts in Romney, Russia on April 23, 1903 as the son of Harry and Fannie Harris. The family emigrated from Russia a year later, settling in Ontario, Canada first and after eight more years ending up in Michigan. A young Samuel would go on to attend Detroit public schools and stay local to graduate with a Doctor of Dental Surgery from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry in 1924. While at the University of Michigan, he attended a lecture given by Dr. Russell Bunting about the “anterior side of dentistry,” which explained how dentistry for children is what can alleviate a large portion of the dental issues in adulthood that would arise without proactive oral health care. This lecture cemented Dr. Harris’s path to becoming a champion for children’s oral health.
With recommendations from Dr. Bunting and the Dean of dental school, Harris was accepted into the Forsyth Infirmary for Children in Boston a year after completing dental school, where he spent most of his time extracting teeth, but also studying what little material existed on dentistry for children at the time and becoming very familiar with the authors of those works.
After finishing at Forsyth, he returned to Detroit eager to share his knowledge about children’s dentistry and find like-minded dental professionals to progress the field. As a result, what can be seen as a pilot for a national organization, Harris founded the Detroit Pedodontic Study Club in December 1926. As luck would have it, the American Dental Association announced its annual convention in 1927 was to be held in Detroit. Dr. Harris was quick to take advantage of this opportunity by assembling a group of his contemporaries to discuss the formation of a national society focused on dentistry for children at the convention. On October 26, 1927, just three years after determining to dedicate his life to children’s oral health, Dr. Harris had laid the groundwork for establishing the American Society for the Promotion of Children’s Dentistry and its journal. He followed up the creation of the national organization with pushing for state units as a means of encouraging wider representation in the field. At the 1931 meeting of the Michigan State Dental Society, Harris formed the Michigan Society of Dentistry for Children, and by 1940 Dr. Harris was integral in helping to establish 19 other state societies.
In 1952, the newly named American Society of Dentistry for Children, celebrated its 25th year of success. Dr. Harris utilized the occasion to expand the impact of dentistry for children by reaching out to dentists around the globe, helping to establish societies in Latin America, South America, and Europe. By 1954, the Pan-American Council of Dentistry for Children was established with Dr. Harris as its President, but it was not until 1969 that Dr. Harris’s vision of an international society would be realized. Twenty years after its inception, the International Association of Dentistry for Children would recognize Dr. Harris for his efforts and achievements with an Honorary Membership to the association.
Around the same time Dr. Harris received his long-deserved recognition from the International Association of Dentistry for Children, a group of American dentists and dental organizations were meeting and working to establish a national museum for the profession of dentistry. Dr. Harris had been interested in this idea for some time as well, as indicated from a 1983 letter of his to the Smithsonian, in which he states,
“Over a period of sixty years I have seen...dental memorabilia totally lost to prosperity and wonder how much of it is being salvaged by the Smithsonian and/or should the American Dental Association be establishing a repository for preserving such historical items.”
Once he found out the museum needed additional funding to go from an idea to a reality, he did as he was accustomed to do in pursuing his interests and supporting what he believed in, by donating $1 million on June 3, 1992, and by the time the museum opened on June 22, 1996, he was recognized for his support in not only having the museum being named The Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry, but also by being the individual to cut the floss and officially open the doors to the public.
Dr. Harris continued to be an integral supporter of the museum until his death in 2003. His family continues his legacy of philanthropy and support of dental education and the advancement of the dental field, especially when it comes to dentistry for children.