These stories begin with Dr. Jan Henry’s journey to becoming a dentist, and the incredible role she’s played in supporting other women in dentistry. Then, we’ll take a look at trail-blazer Lucy Hobbs Taylor, the first American woman to earn her DDS. Lastly, the anthology features insights from four of our other female dentists, and their experiences from dental school to mentorship and beyond. From all of us at Dental Depot, we wish you a very happy Women’s History Month with this trio of inspiring stories.
Dr. Henry is an accomplished dentist of more than 30 years who has served both as an associate professor and as a member of the admissions committee for her alumnus, the University of Oklahoma’s College of Dentistry, helping to interview hundreds of talented candidates each year. Dr. Henry has worked in both group and private practice throughout her career, publishing articles in the Oklahoma Dental Association Journal, and speaking for continuing education events on topics such as dental care for geriatric patients, victims of domestic abuse, and pediatrics. Her awards, accomplishments, and contributions are too numerous to surmise here. There’s no doubt she’s inspired many of her peers, students, and patients throughout the years – but what you might not know about Dr. Henry, is how her story began.
For starters, she didn’t go into college right away. Dr. Henry’s family had moved to California as she was graduating high school, and she felt overwhelmed by her new surroundings. So, she turned to secretarial work and quickly discovered it wasn’t a good fit. In fact, she was fired from three different secretarial jobs because she felt unchallenged and bored.
Reflecting on her interest in dentistry, Dr. Henry found an assisting program similar to the Dental Depot Academy in the late 1960s. The school uniform was comprised of a white dress, white shoes, and a white nurse’s cap. Even once she graduated, Dr. Henry remembers that she still had to wear the uniform – sans cap. She married, had four children, and took college courses when she was able.
“I was 34 years old when I went back to school,” said Dr. Henry. “When my youngest son started kindergarten I decided to start my four-year degree. I thought, ‘I can either go to hygiene school and become a hygienist in four years, or I can stay and become a dentist in eight. And in less time than it takes to say that, I had made my decision.”
Dr. Henry jumped into the deep end, completing her prerequisites and applying to the only dental school she’d considered – Loma Linda University. While she completed her undergraduate degree, her husband’s work brought him to Oklahoma on what was supposed to be three-month contract that was extended. So, Dr. Henry moved her family out to Oklahoma to be together and admittedly knew nothing about the state or OU.
“The friend that brought us out to Oklahoma introduced me to the dental school. I was 37 when I was applying and I was concerned my age would be a problem. I was afraid they wouldn’t take me seriously,” said Dr. Henry. “I made an appointment with Dean [William E.] Brown and spent the afternoon with him. I wanted to see if I could sell myself to the school. Instead, he sold OU to me.”
Accepted to both Loma Linda and OU, she decided that Oklahoma would be a better place to raise her family. So, in 1985 she began dental school. With rigorous 80-hour weeks devoted to school, Dr. Henry’s husband took care of their family to allow her to focus. Then, in May of her third year, tragedy struck.
“My husband unexpectedly died of a widowmaker heart attack the day after my 41st birthday,” Dr. Henry recounted. “I’ve thought about it a million times. If I’d had longer to go, I may not have been able to go on. But I only had one year left and I couldn’t not go on. The reality of it was that I needed to stay with my class. I was back with my classmates by August and I graduated with them in 1989.”
Of her class, only 13 of the 49 students were women. Female mentors were few and far between, but of those Dr. Henry had, they had quality in spades. Award-winning prosthodontist Dr. Susan E. “Betsy” Brackett was a professor and mentor of Dr. Henry’s, one of very few female dentists at the time (and who had been told she was taking the place of a man during dental school). And while a lack of peers never discouraged Dr. Henry, she knew she was in a position to be a mentor to other women in dentistry.
“Dentistry is such a satisfying career for women. I don’t know why we haven’t dominated it all along,” said Dr. Henry. “Women are professionals and to be a woman in this profession, it’s very satisfying. You get to decide your own schedule and run a practice the way you want. There are more expectations with family life, but you get control over your work-life balance.”
As for the future of women in dentistry, Dr. Henry is confident women can thrive in this profession.
“I think that the barriers that do exist, we can handle. They aren’t as intimidating as they used to be,” Dr. Henry said. She’s experienced hiccups throughout the years, but has addressed them with poise. “I started at a new practice and my first day one of the women at the desk thought I was the new dental assistant. She wouldn’t have assumed that if a man had walked into the office. It still happens, but the barriers that are there to keep you from getting to where you want to be, you can get through them.”
Today, Dr. Henry is a part of the Dental Depot team at Moore. She continues to mentor women interested in dentistry and serves on the admissions committee. Dr. Henry did remarry, and together she and husband Robert Henry have six adult children and eight grandchildren. She enjoys a myriad of creative hobbies including building miniatures and gardening.
At age 26, Lucy Hobbs decided she wanted to change careers. She’d been teaching for a decade and decided it was finally time to pursue her calling – dentistry. The only problem was that Hobbs made this decision in 1859, at a time when women weren’t even allowed to apply to dental school. So, she did it anyway. Hobbs found a mentor in the Ohio College of Dental Surgery, and studied privately until opening her own practice three years later. She was finally admitted to the school as a senior and graduated in February 1866, paving the way as the first female dentist in the United States.
Today, surveys conducted by Indeed.com show that one in four women express an interest in healthcare, yet most women in these professions tend to be assistants, not providers. In dentistry, women have always dominated assisting and dental hygiene (90% in both cases), but now, more and more women are pursuing careers as dentists.
Aside from the reward of helping patients live life with their best smiles, dentistry appeals to women for the flexibility and control it offers, allowing them to be in charge of their own schedules and make time for the things that matter. And because everyone has teeth or needs teeth, the income is always stable.
In fact, in 1978 – the same year that Dental Depot was founded – only 15% of first-year dental students were women. Today, women make up 31% of practicing dentists and the number is projected to keep growing as more and more women are graduating dental school and older dentists retire.
Dr. Jamie Belknap is another OU alum who graduated in the 1980s. Of the 72 students in her class, only 12 were women – just 16%.
“When I attended dental school in the 1980’s, we were told to dress professionally – and this was before scrubs – so I remember doing dentistry in a dress and uncomfortable shoes,” recalled Dr. Jamie Belknap. “I decided I wanted to be a dentist when I was in 7th grade, and I was extremely lucky to have had great parents, who gave me lots of support.”
“The first female dentist out of the OU College of Dentistry, Dr. Linda Chapin, was in my hometown of Norman and my dad suggested I contact her about working for her one summer in high school,” continued Dr. Belknap. “He said it would help me decide if dentistry was really for me and that I should offer to work all summer for her for free. I thought this was a horrible idea but I did it and, thankfully, she hired me and paid me. I came away more determined than ever to be a dentist.”
“Around this time, my parents gave me a plaque which I still have, with a quote that still speaks to me, ‘Surely woman should bring the best she has, whatever that is, to the world, you want to do the thing that is good, whether it is ‘suitable for a woman’ or not. – Florence Nightingale.’”
Dr. Katelyn Blanchard graduated from the Baylor College of Dentistry with 110 students, of which about 50% were women. In addition, Dr. Blanchard was fortunate to have several female faculty members to mentor her, both in dental school and during her orthodontic residency.
“I spent time in multiple female orthodontists’ offices both while I was in dental school and while completing orthodontic residency,” Dr. Blanchard said. “It really helped to see women that were ‘doing it all’ – successful in their practices and also successful moms and wives. It really impressed me how committed they were to their patients and their outcomes all while juggling soccer practice, piano lessons, and keeping their household running.”
“I have had several people reach out to me for advice, including members of my staff here at Dental Depot,” Dr. Blanchard said. “They have big goals to pursue dental school or hygiene school and I think it is such a good investment of their time and money, especially as women. There is flexibility that allows you to have a work-life balance that is very difficult to achieve in other fields, such as medicine.”
Dr. Priyanka Kulkarni’s graduating class of 40 was made up of about 50% women and she had many female faculty members to learn from.
“Before pursuing dental school, the female dentist that I worked for was a great mentor to help me through the application process of my dental school,” said Dr. Kulkarni. “At OU I was introduced to the Oklahoma Association of Women Dentist (OAWD). As soon as you join OAWD as a student, you are paired with one of the practicing female dentist to mentor you throughout the dental school.”
“As a student at OU College of Dentistry, I was a student faculty in my senior year and was always mentoring younger class students, whether it was in pre-clinical labs or in clinics to help them through a certain procedure. Even in my practice, anytime I meet a dental assistant who has a great aptitude for dentistry, I am always encouraging them to apply to dental school, or dental hygiene school. Every year, I help the OU College of Dentistry with their interview process for prospective dental students and am always available to guide any prospective students to help them through the application process.”
Dr. Tara Stanford graduated from Midwestern University’s College of Dental Medicine in Illinois and of her class, 49 of the 129 students were women – that’s 37%! In addition to more peers, Dr. Stanford also had 13 female faculty and sought out Dr. Valerie Swan as her mentor.
“Dr. Swan was our oral surgeon faculty. She took quite a few of the female dental students under her wing,” said Dr. Stanford. “She came from Russia at the age of 16 and had already graduated from college. She came and did a masters program, dental school, medical school, oral surgery residency and went into private practice before going in to education. She is the perfect example of females taking the world by storm!”