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“G. V. Black – The Man of the Centuries” by E. F. Schewe, 1950

This profile of Greene Vardiman Black (1836-1915) was published in the May 1950 issue of the Washington University Dental Journal.  The author, Edward F. Schewe, was a 1902 graduate of the Dental Department of Washington University.

E. F. Schewe, ’02

Greene Vardiman Black
Greene Vardiman Black

Greene Vardiman Black was an alumnus and faculty member of the Missouri Dental College and one of dentistry’s all-time great.  In fact, he is in a class by himself, considering his background and achievements.  Now thirty-five years after his passing, the dental world has not produced his like.  He was the dominant dental figure of the last half of the nineteenth century and he may well still be considered the outstanding personality of the first half of the twentieth.  He remains our unforgettable character.

The primary purpose of all professions and vocations is to produce men.  Therefore, in discussing distinguished personalities, especially scientists, the best approach, I believe, is to analyze the man himself first, and then learn what science has made of him.

In commenting on Sainte-Beuve’s “There is in mankind three-fourths of a poet who died young, when the man survived,” Charles Wagner added: “In a certain sense this is true, but we can with more truth say that there dies young in three-fourths of us the man himself.  In lieu of him there survives a lawyer, a professor, a politician, a financier, a workman, a churchman, and when one wishes to address these survivors (these sad remains) and tell them of humanity and human interests, they answer: ‘It is none of our affair.’ ”

Black the Man — At the age of seven Thomas Edison was a problem.  His school teacher said the boy was hopeless, “addled,” and useless to keep in school any longer.

Charles Darwin’s father thought his son would amount to nothing.  “My father once said to me,” wrote Darwin, “You care for nothing but shooting dogs and catching rats, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all the family.”

The boyhood of Greene Vardiman Black seemed a similar problem.  He regarded going to school a waste of time, preferring hunting, fishing and roaming the woods.  He could learn more in the woods in an hour than in school in a week, he said.  Wild turkeys, pigeons, deer, skunks, wolves, bears and foxes were of real interest to him.

He would not work on the farm.  He was sent out to plow one afternoon.  He plowed one row across the field to some willows, spent the afternoon studying birds, plants and animals, and then plowed a row back.  Why waste time on school and work when there were more important things to do? he must have thought.  Hence the problem to his pioneer folks.  They regarded him lazy and stupid.  Only his mother understood him and she had him help her in the kitchen.

He was not ill-natured.  He was even tempered; loved music, played the double-bass viol, the flute and the violin.  He loved to take part in family singing.

In 1852, after seventeen years on the farm, he went to live with an older brother, Thomas Black, a physician of Clayton, Illinois, a graduate of the Louisville (Kentucky) Medical College, who enjoyed a lucrative practice.  Tom was Greene’s senior by eleven years, and the boy often visited his parents.  He was active in the social life of the community and was popular with the boys and girls of the town and countryside.  Tom was a good preceptor, and Greene “read” medicine under his direction, and probably would have followed a medical career had not two things intervened.  He fell in love with Jane Coughener, whom he married, and he met Dr. J. C. Spear, a dentist in Mt. Sterling, a neighboring town.  Perhaps he appeared something of a problem to Dr. Tom also, inasmuch as he gave up medicine, temporarily, and took up the rather obscure trade of dentistry.  Yet he and Tom remained close and life-long friends.  He never allowed himself to have a falling out with anyone.  He was a youth who would not follow the beaten paths of education.  He had only twenty-two months of formal schooling, yet he was always studious and learned what he wanted to in his own way.  Though lacking in formal education, the honorary degrees he acquired – D.D.S., M.D., Sc.D., LL.D. – are the envy of scholars and scientists.

At that time, medicine, of which dentistry was a part, was far from being a science.  The young dentist, prior to 1840, got his training in the office of an older dentist.  Black spent several weeks with Dr. Spear and felt that he had learned all that pioneer could teach him.  So in 1857 he located at Winchester, Illinois, and was the first dentist in Scott County, and something of a curiosity besides.  He soon emerged a professional man in a calling which then was little more than a trade.  But his medical studies prompted him to study cause and effect of disease, thus viewing his calling from a wider angle.  And dentistry, which then could boast of only three schools and three journals, could scarcely lay claim to much recognition.

Black’s life at Winchester was a success.  The people were friendly and his home life was everything that could be desired.  When the Civil War broke out, the young dentist enlisted in the Union army.  While in service he sustained a knee injury, necessitating a long stay in a hospital in Louisville, Kentucky.  In the meantime, his first-born son had died and a second son had been born.  Then his wife developed tuberculosis and died in 1863.  The new young son was taken to the home of the grandparents Black, who made him one of their own.  The home at Winchester was broken up, and since Black was not physically able to resume service in the army, he removed to Jacksonville, Illinois, a city of 10,000 inhabitants, and of academies, colleges and state institutions, and where there were literary and scientific societies, and there to practice his profession.  That was also in 1863.  He took an active and leading part in the life of the community and became acquainted with Miss Elizabeth Davenport, who had been a student at the Jacksonville Female Academy.  On September 14, 1865, they were married.  He brought his young son from his mother’s home, and Carl became the young wife’s boy in every sense of the word.  No man ever made a happier choice in marriage, for Elizabeth Black was an exceptional woman of refined manners, pleasing personality and gentle dignity, who, with rare insight, tact and devotion, filled a place in the life of her gifted husband.  With ardor she entered into his scientific ambitions, and was proud of his many achievements.

When the Missouri State Dental Association held its first meeting in June 1866, Black became a member.  And when the Missouri Dental College was chartered on September 15, 1866, he was one of its trustees.  He served on its faculty from 1870 to 1881.  In 1878, he was awarded the D.D.S. degree.  He lectured on pathology, and his lectures, never repetitious from year to year were constantly kept up to date.

The immense output of his scientific work might lead one to believe that he was a scientific recluse.  Nothing could be farther from the truth, for he took active part in the community life of Jacksonville.  He was president of the Ward Republican Club, member of the Managing Committee of the I. O. O. F. Library Association.  He sang in the choir of the Christian Church, and was secretary of the Jacksonville Philharmonic Society, and was Master of his Masonic lodge.  His home life, as his friend, Thomas Gilmer, said, “was ideal in every respect.  At table, scientific matters were dropped, and we just had a good time with the family in general conversation.  There was an air of refinement about it all.”

G. V. Black was the model father and husband in the family circle, the ideal professional man in public life, and the scholar and scientist who labored in solitude and without fanfare.  Despite the large amount of time and money he spent in extensive research, which has immeasurably enriched dentistry, he never neglected his practice, and always derived sufficient income therefrom, to provide for his family, giving his children every educational advantage, and leaving enough at his death to provide for his dependents.

The Father of Modern Dentistry” — The pioneer boy who would not go to school nor work on the farm had, in due time, undergone a great transformation.  In his own way he educated himself and became dentistry’s leading scientist.  His share in elevating a trade to a profession is large indeed, and his role in the development and growth of formal dental education is worthy of praise.  A supreme ideal of his was to make dentistry autonomous.

It is impossible, in my limited space, to more than summarize Black’s achievements.  He studied German, Latin, algebra, geometry and the basic sciences in his own way.  He worked diligently to learn all he could about the budding science of bacteriology.  He studied the works of Pasteur, Koch, Loeb, Ehrlich, Colin, Schwann, Lister and many others.  Lister had revolutionized surgery with new methods of applied asepsis and antisepsis.

Black’s friend, W. D. Miller of Ohio – another immortal – had gone to Berlin to take up in earnest the study of bacteriology.  Black brushed up on his German and French to keep in touch with the results of these investigations.  He studied diseases of the mouth and made observations on the influence of acid or alkaline condition upon the teeth.  He studied tissues and made microscopic slides of his own.  He made almost all of his instruments.

In 1880, Pasteur had discovered the streptococcus and pneumococcus.  Black immunized chickens against cholera – a new method in a new field.  The discoveries of Eberth in the cause of typhoid fever, Leveran in malaria, and Pasteur and Sternberg in the carrying of pneumonia organisms in the healthy mouth – all these discoveries fired the mind of this dentist.  In 1883, he prepared his first book, The Formation of Poisons by Microorganisms.  He was the first to announce that all life, including microorganisms, produces injurious waste products, and that they are largely responsible for disease, including dental caries.  He quoted Virchow, and discussed the works of Klebs, Volkmann, Beale, Pasteur and Koch to show that microorganisms produce disease.  He went to Germany and France to deliver lectures on the results of his research.

In 1890, appeared the first edition of his Dental Anatomy.  Of it Dr. Fred Gethro said: “Practically every dental school in the country uses Black’s Dental Anatomy.  His work was so thoroughly done that no one attempted to write a book on that subject.”  In 1891, the Dental Cosmos published five of his articles on “The Management of Enamel Margins,” in which the phrase, Extension for Prevention, appeared, and a phrase which has become part and parcel of scientific cavity preparation.

For twelve years prior to 1895 Black experimented on amalgam as a filling material.  Its status had not changed much since 1845, when the Society of Dental Surgeons in America passed this resolution: “Resolved that any member of the society, who shall hereafter refuse to sign a certificate pledging himself not to use any amalgam, and moreover, protesting against its use under any circumstances in dental practice, shall be expelled from the society.”  But Black was convinced that amalgam, if scientifically prepared and used, could be a good permanent filling material despite the many alloys on the market, all equally bad.

His study of amalgam was exacting, requiring new instruments, which he himself made.  In 1896, he gave us the first formula for a scientifically balanced amalgam, for he knew the secrets of expansion and contraction and he might have controlled its manufacture, commercialized his work, and enriched himself financially.  But he did not.  He was a professional man, a scientist and educator.  “He would not let die in him the man; he would not let perish the buds of art, poetry and science as they have died already in a thousand thousand men.”  He would place his formula in the hands of the manufacturers.  He called them together, and, for a small fee, gave them courses of lectures and demonstrated the making of a balanced alloy.  His formula revolutionized dental practice.  To illustrate: The Office of the Surgeon General stated that from December 7, 1941, to September 1, 1945, army dentists inserted 68,170,326 permanent restorations and most of them were of amalgam.

In 1908, Black’s monumental work, Operative Dentistry, appeared in two volumes, which work was the magnificent culmination of his long labors.  From 1864 to 1915 he had produced more than 1300 papers and addresses on scientific end professional subjects.  Being a natural born teacher, he studied the problems of education.  In 1897, he became dean of Northwestern University Dental School, and in this capacity he served for seventeen years.  He became the foremost leader in dental education and helped build one of the leading Dental schools in the world.

On the old farm where he had spent his boyhood G. V. Black passed away on August 31, 1915.  His remains were interred at Jacksonville, where he had spent 35 of his most active years.  From all parts of the world came messages of tribute to his transcendent ability, his superlative contributions and unselfish devotion.  It was universally recognized that, among the men who have stamped the impress of their greatness upon the profession of dentistry, the figure of the immortal G. V. towers upward like a cathedral dome.


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