WDA: The Early Years

The Wisconsin State Dental Society formed in late 1800s to combat fraudulent dentistry.

We look back on how organized dentistry came to Wisconsin since that time. Overall, organized dentistry was a byproduct of the growth that marked the 19th century. In 1830, the 3,000 inhabitants of the Territory of Wisconsin could manage with a handful of charlatans (quacks) and semi-skilled “tooth extractors.” But, the subsequent population boom called for a professional organization to bring order and competence to what was then considered the chaos of dentistry.

1870 saw the area (which had become a state in 1848) population grow to one million residents. Mining, lumbering and meat packing were big business. The cheese-making industry was developing and would soon help make Wisconsin the nation’s dairyland.

During these years, dentistry experienced a growth in technology including the beginning of large-scale manufacturing of teeth and dental equipment, discovery of inhalation anesthesia and the first use of plaster of paris.

Technological advances aside, the profession needed reform. With no dental licensure, anyone wanting to be a dentist could do so with little or no training. This led to many unqualified and incompetent individuals practicing dentistry. Some argued this could be solved through self-policing by members of the profession, while others felt governmental licensing and regulation were necessary. Either way, these reforms could not be achieved without organizational unity.

On Sept. 28, 1870, 11 years after the American Dental Association was created, a group of dentists gathered at the Milwaukee office of Dr. Henry Faville to form the Wisconsin State Dental Society. The first unofficial officers included:

  • President – Dr. Edgar Palmer of La Crosse
  • Secretary – Dr. Faville
  • Assistant Secretary – Dr. B.D. Stevens of Prairie du Chien

The Milwaukee Sentinel reported, “A goodly number of dentists from nearly every part of the state met in convention yesterday at the office of Dr. Faville…for the purpose of effecting the organization of a State Dental Society, the object being ‘the cultivation of Professional Science and Literature and the encouragement of a more thorough professional education and the protection of the public from the evils of empiricism (quackery)’.”

The Wisconsin State Dental Society was formally incorporated and granted a charter on Feb. 11, 1871 with a stated purpose to, “…contribute to the diffusion of true science and the advancement of professional skill in the various branches of dental art.” The first “official” president was Dr. D.W. Perkins of Milwaukee.

Issues facing the dental society in its early years included the advancing science of dentistry, preventive dentistry (including diet, hygiene and pregnancy), “dental school” diploma mills (i.e., diplomas for sale) and, most notably, dental licensure.

*Information from this article was taken from “History of Dentistry in Wisconsin” by Frank J. Campenni.