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Figures in Dentistry: G.V. Black

Michael DiTolla, DDS, FAGD

article by Michael C. DiTolla, DDS, FAGD

Note from the Editor

Is there any name as well known to dentists and dental students as G.V. Black? It’s been more than 150 years since Dr. Black started to practice, and many of his ideas of cavity preparation remain largely unchanged. While adhesive dentistry has changed some of Black’s requirements for preparations, his principles are still the ones on which modern dental education is based. When his name came up in a recent conversation with some other dentists, we all realized we didn’t know much about the man aside from his seven steps of cavity preparation. Here is a closer look at the life of G.V. Black. It may just come in handy at your next all-dentist cocktail party.

Greene Vardiman (G.V.) Black’s life was a picture of contrast. As a child, Black thought he could learn more by spending time in the woods than in the classroom. In adulthood, Black became an influential pioneer in the development and growth of formal dental education, as well as modern dentistry.

Born in 1836, the young Black considered formal education a waste of time. He eventually entered the world of dentistry as a self-learner, with the help of his older brother, a practicing physician. G.V. moved off the family farm at the age of 17 to live with his brother and learn about the body, ailments and treatments.

At the age of 21, Black spent several months with a local dentist. After learning everything he thought he could learn, he left to start a practice of his own in Winchester, Illinois, in 1857, becoming the first dentist in Scott County.

While in private practice, Black continued to study fervently. He used what he learned from his brother to study how disease affects the mouth. He made observations on the influence of acids and alkaline upon teeth. He even created the instruments used to perform these studies. One of his many inventions was the foot-driven dental drill.

What he learned changed the face of modern dentistry.

In his first book, “The Formation of Poisons by Microorganisms” (1883), Black was the first to note that microorganisms were largely responsible for disease, including dental caries. The Dental Cosmos published five of his articles in 1891 on “The Management of Enamel Margins,” where the phrase “extension for prevention” was popularized in the treatment of cavities. In 1896, after 13 years of study, he provided the first formula for a scientifically balanced amalgam for fillings. In all, his work produced more than 1,300 scientific papers and addresses.

Numerous distinguished positions were bestowed upon Black because of his work. He was trustee of the Missouri Dental College when it was chartered in 1866, and served on its faculty for 11 years, during which time the school awarded him an honorary DDS. He was a six-year president of the Illinois State Board of Dental Examiners. Following teaching stints at numerous colleges, Black was named dean of Northwestern University Dental School in 1897, where his portrait hung until the school closed in 2001. A statue honoring him can be found in Chicago’s Lincoln Park.

Black’s career culminated in the publication of two groundbreaking books: “Dental Anatomy” (1890) and the two-volume “Operational Dentistry” (1908).

On the old farm where he spent his boyhood, Dr. Black passed away on Aug. 31, 1915.

Now, nearly a century later, dental education is still shaped by G.V. Black, a man who grew from a child with no interest in formal education, to a man who fathered modern dentistry and the way we learn it. His life exemplified his profound and often-quoted statement: “The professional man has no right to be other than a continuous student.”

Chairside Magazine: Volume 6, Issue 4

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