In honor of Dental Hygiene month, we salute the dental hygiene community for gracefully persevering in the face of immense challenge during this global pandemic — working tirelessly to provide essential healthcare to patients in our communities. To celebrate, we explore the genesis of dental hygienists — a story born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, starring the spirited Irene Newman.
The field of dental hygiene was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut
In 1907, Alfred Fones, a local dentist who understood the importance of good oral healthcare, decided to train his cousin, Irene Newman, to perform dental prophylaxis on patients. Dr. Fones instructed her for one year before allowing her to take over scaling and polishing patients' teeth. Newman was the first dental hygienist to work in a clinical setting — and her work set the stage for the burgeoning field of dental hygiene.
From “dental nurses” to “dental hygienists”
The United States’ first dental hygiene program was established in Bridgeport in 1913 by Dr. Fones. Members of the first dental hygiene graduating class of 1914 were employed in school settings to underscore the importance of oral care to children. These pioneering dental hygienists were initially known as “dental nurses,” but Dr. Fones changed their job title to “dental hygienist” — and voila, the new field had a name.
This nascent discipline's impact extended far past healthier mouths; it is surmised that the accomplishments of Irene Newman and Dr. Alfred Fones may have led to Bridgeport, Connecticut, reporting one of the lowest death rates for a large city during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Perhaps there are some lessons there that are germane to today.
A woman becomes the first licensed dental hygienist
Irene Newman became the first licensed dental hygienist in 1917 — and Connecticut became, the first state to pass a dental hygiene licensure law. Within three years, six more states created dental hygiene programs. The American Dental Hygienists Association, or ADHA, was established in 1923, with 46 members — and the field grew exponentially from there. By 1952, all 50 states had licensed dental hygienists.
As dental hygienist programs became global, the ADHA instituted requirements for admissions. In 1935, a high school diploma became mandatory for licensure, and by 1940, a two-year course of study in dental hygiene became compulsory as well. That same year, the ADHA implemented the term “Registered Dental Hygienist.”
Civil Rights opened the dental hygiene field up to men
Civil Rights dominated much of the 1950s and 1960s and positively impacted the dental hygiene industry — the ADHA lifted its restrictions for admissions — opening the field to those of any race, color, or creed. And in a gender plot twist, "female" was struck from the ADHA Constitution in 1964, paving the way for the first male dental hygienist, Jack Orio, who graduated in 1965.
The rise and RISE of dental hygienists
There has been a marked increase in the number of Registered Dental Hygienists but a decline in dentists' number. In 1950, dental hygienists accounted for only 2% of the dental profession, and dentists comprised 51%. However, by 2000, those numbers looked drastically different, with a fifty-fifty ratio of dental hygienists to dentists.
As the dental hygiene industry grows, it is good to look back to the beginning and see just how far the field has come in the last 113 years.