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Detecting dental history

Archivist investigates while going digital

April 18, 2016

By Kimber Solana

ADA Library & Archives graphic

The ADA may have its very own Sherlock Holmes.

When a member dentist conducting research on record-keeping wondered when the first dental chart was invented, the ADA Library & Archives found the answer.

Whenever ADA Library & Archives archivist Andrea Matlak receives questions concerning 19th century dental equipment or materials, she said she quickly browses the Archives’ dental catalog collection.

She saw an ad copy from the 1860s for the Allport Ledger system, which mentioned that a dentist who invented it was from Chicago. Ms. Matlak immediately thought of Dr. Walter Allport, a prominent dentist at the time who helped establish the dental profession in the 19th century.

Ms. Matlak went to the Archive’s biography collection and found Dr. Allport’s obituary which included a quote from a long-time associate saying “in 1858, [Dr. Allport] originated the first dental registering ledger with diagrams of the teeth … known as the Allport Dental Ledger.”

Problem solved.

That question is among the hundreds of inquiries member dentists have sent to the ADA Archives over the years — 160 queries were submitted in 2015.

When did the first patient brochure debut? How many ADA presidents came from California? Who was the first woman dentist in America?

From quick inquiries to those requiring further investigation, the ADA Library & Archives is home to collections that could help any dental history buff find answers.

“Making dental history easier to save and more easily accessible was the motive behind starting an archive,” Ms. Matlak said.

Keeping history

While the ADA established its library in 1927, it took about another three decades until the Association’s Archives was founded.

In the 1950s, ADA staff sought to look for commemorative items with an historical nature to feature in anticipation of the ADA’s 100-year anniversary in 1959. However, they found that many had already been lost.

Ms. Matlak said that Dr. Donald Washburn, then-ADA Library director, spearheaded the effort to establish the Archives.

Today, the ADA Archives is home to more than 6,000 photographic prints, negatives and slides; 560 museum-type artifacts; 1,815 tapes, disks and films in its audiovisual collection; and more than 7,480 names in its dental-related biographical compilation file — from George Washington to Dr. Geraldine Morrow, the ADA’s first female president.

These items include patient brochures, such as a copy of the first patient brochure printed in 1909; minutes from ADA Board of Trustees meetings dating back to the 1940s; and painted portraits of former ADA presidents.

The meticulously organized collection takes up 557 linear feet of shelf space in the ADA Library & Archives at ADA Headquarters.

The collection helps Ms. Matlak easily find answers for questions sent her way — though sometimes with a little luck.

Going digital

Soon, members who are historical buffs can do their own investigations.

As part of the Library Transition Plan, the Archives is in the process of digitizing its collection. This process stems from a 2013 ADA House of Delegates vote. The goal: to make the collection easily available to ADA members. An early version of the online archival system, allowing members to access the collection, is expected to launch in 2017, Ms. Matlak said.

This effort includes digitally scanning pages and pages of historical documents — from meeting minutes and brochure samples to black-and-white photos — and entering them in a database. However, many of the physical documents, including artifacts, will continue to be stored in the archives.

“Dental history is sometimes hard to find out there,” said Ms. Matlak, “While a lot of it has been lost, the Archives is a good place to start looking.”

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