By the end of the 19th century, organized dentistry was thriving and the public was more aware they could seek treatment from educated, experienced dentists rather than fly-by-night crooks that would yank people's teeth and vanish. By this time, a professional dental association was established along with a permanent dental college and a dental Code of Ethics. Dentistry had become a respectable profession.
It was in 1893, during this era of evolution and great positive change that Dr. Caroline Louise Josephine Wells became the first female member of the Ontario Dental Association and the first female graduate of the Royal College of Dental Surgeons (RCDS). Dr. Wells was married to a dentist and when his health started to fail, she decided to go into the profession. This was no easy feat, as she faced tremendous social and economic pressures to achieve her goal. Determined to overcome these obstacles, Wells sent her three children to live with relatives so that she could concentrate on her studies and successfully complete her education.
Dr. Wells' graduation and entry into the dental profession provided inspiration to other Ontario women and paved the way for them while also signalling the end of male exclusivity in organized dentistry. The trailblazing efforts of Dr. Wells continued well into her career. For the next 36 years, she practised primarily in Toronto and provided ground-breaking dental care to patients in several of Ontario's mental hospitals, where her expertise was sorely needed.
In 1911, a report detailing the state of dental care in provincial asylums painted a grave picture for the patients. There were no dental inspections and destitute patients had to rely on physicians to pull their decaying teeth. Dr. Wells was known for providing care to patients in Toronto and Mimico hospitals, as well as at the Mercer Reformatory for Women, the first women's prison in Canada. While the 1911 report called for a more "uniform and systematic policy" guaranteeing treatment for asylum patients, it would take another 20 years before the province adopted a policy for resident dentists to be assigned to care for patients in mental hospitals.
It's clear Dr. Wells was a dentist well ahead of her time and devoted many years throughout her career to caring for this vulnerable and neglected population. She was so committed to her work, she didn't retire until she was 72.
This content was produced by the Ontario Dental Association. The Globe and Mail was not involved in its creation.