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Texas dentist opens Victorian-era themed dental museum

Free tours focus on dental manufacturing history

September 08, 2016

By Kimber Solana

Photo of Dr. Kim Freeman in the Texas Dental Historical Museum

Combining passions: Dr. Kim Freeman, a fervent antiques collector since he was 8 years old, opened the Texas Dental Historical Museum in April in Lake Jackson, Texas, where he has practiced for 30 years. Dressed in Victorian-style clothing, Dr. Freeman welcomes small groups of visitors on a free two-hour guided tour of his museum.

Lake Jackson, Texas — From cabinets and dental chairs to hand tools and light fixtures, when it comes to style, today’s operatories can seem a little bland to Dr. Kim Freeman.

“Everyone is trying to make things modern and stylish,” said Dr. Freeman, who has been practicing for about 30 years in Lake Jackson, Texas. “But like today’s cars, they all look the same.”

Dr. Freeman, a fervent antiques collector — particularly of dental equipment and furniture — much prefers the elegance in and around the Victorian period, where details in the hinges, color schemes, casting of furniture and tools were something to behold.

“The most elegant of the dental equipment that was ever manufactured in this country was done between 1885 and 1910,” he said. “They lead you to look at them as more than a dental cabinet or dental chair but true Americana.”

Earlier this year, combining his passion for dentistry, history and years of collecting antiques, Dr. Freeman opened the Texas Dental Historical Museum in April. Along with the artifacts, the 2,200-square-foot dental museum’s design and colors are inspired by the Victorian period. Donning a Victorian coat and tie and pocket watch, Dr. Freeman welcomes small groups of visitors on two-hour guided tour.

“It’s like dental Disneyland but this isn’t designed to be kid-friendly,” he said. “There are no displays of teeth. The museum is designed for the person who wants and is interested in the historical aspects of dentistry.”

His goal: to help dentists appreciate what this country provided for their profession.

“There’s so little that people here know about the American manufacturing sector as well as the history of our profession,” he said. “A few realize what a force manufacturing was in the country. American took this profession of dentistry by storm.”

The free museum adjoins his house and overlooks the waters of the Buffalo Camp Bayou. It is the culmination of 30-plus years of collecting antiques that are part of the story of his profession.

Photo of the Texas Dental Historical Museum’s SS White room
Illuminating: The Texas Dental Historical Museum’s SS White room of the showcases many antiques including four lavender globe lights with silver finials. The lights were used in the early 1900s when electricity was becoming more popular to use in the dental office.

From an early age

Dr. Freeman, 59, remembers when his mother would take him to estate and garage sales and antique shops when he was only 8 years old.

“We would fix things up and repaint it,” he said. “She would drop me off in the morning at a flea market in Houston, and I’d sell them during the day.”

He also started collecting when he was very young, from comic books to antique guns he collected with his father.

When he went off dental school, it only made sense that two of his childhood hobbies transitioned into collecting antique dental equipment.

“When I started, the cabinets were inexpensive…about $5-$6,000,” he said. “Today, those cabinets would $10-$15,000 restored.”

One of the first dental items he bought was a cabinet manufactured by the American Cabinet Co., which was based in Wisconsin.

“They dominated the industry through the 1960s,” said Dr. Freeman, who graduated in 1985 from the Washington University School of Dental Medicine in 1985. He moved to Texas to study endodontics at the University of Texas School of Dentistry.

He kept the cabinet in his dental office but later sold it to a friend who still has it.

He continued to acquire and buy other antiques over the years that in 1991, he dedicated a 400-foot-square area in his dental office to the items he continued to collect. When the time came that he simply needed more space, he built a facility at his home to store more of his collection.

About eight years ago, he said, it was time to combine and display his collection from his dental office and his home under one roof.

“I’m getting closer to retirement age,” he said. “And if I was going to do it, I had to do it now.”

Rich in history

The first thing people will see when they enter the foyer of the museum is what looks like the front of a Victorian building, complete with a street lamp and a clock mounted on a pole.

Since its opening, Dr. Freeman has welcomed groups of dental students from the University of Texas School of Dentistry, where he works as a part time instructor for 18 years, to international researchers from Brazil.

The museum’s collection includes about 26 cabinets, a dozen chairs, “hundreds and hundreds of hand instruments,” bracket tables, foot treadles and electric drills — which came into popularity in the early 1990s.

One room in the museum is dedicated to dental manufacturer SS White. Rare items include a prototype of the first dental chair, a patent model by SS White, made in 1877. In the SS White room, Dr. Freeman also showcases four lavender globe lights with silver finials.

When switched on, “the light that just comes from that is absolutely amazing,” he said. “This was used in a period of time, about 1905, when electricity was becoming more popular to use in the dental office.”

He bought the light fixture at an antique shop in St. Louis. However, about 70 percent of the museum’s collection came from other collectors who have been willing to sell some items.

“When you have a cabinet that is one of 150, you’re not going to see that in an antique shop,” he said.

Photo of the Texas Dental Historial Museum

‘True Americana’: The Texas Dental Historial Museum’s collection highlights the dental equipment manufactured in the U.S. in and around the Victorian period. “They lead you to look at them as more than a dental cabinet or dental chair but true American,” he said.

Remembering integrity

Dr. Freeman has two daughters — one shares an interest in antiquity, the other doesn’t quite understand her father’s passion.

“But both have been very supportive,” he said, adding that his youngest, who sometimes question why he’s spent so much money building the museum, has a great eye for color and assisted him in the museum’s color scheme.

Nonetheless, educating dentists of the profession’s manufacturing history is important to Dr. Freeman. The quality of how American dentists approached their profession is what he’d like to highlight.

In addition, for Dr. Freeman, who is critical of what he says is a more “corporate model” of dentistry, building the museum is a way to help today’s younger dentists and dental students to look back and remember the pioneers of the profession.

“At the end of the tour, one of the speeches I give to students is about integrity,” he said. “I ask them to not dishonor the fallen colleagues who worked their entire lives in much more difficult situations and settings.”

To schedule a tour, contact Dr. Freeman at 1-979-297-0633.

Photos were provided by the Texas Dental Historical Museum.