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Bill Thayer

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Joseph Duncan

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph, taken from the sidewalk in front, of a two‑story wood frame house with gently pitched roofs and tall thin rectangular windows. It is the house of Dr. Greene Vardiman Black in Jacksonville, Illinois.]

Dr. Greene Vardiman Black House, Jacksonville, Built 1860's.

 p74  Cradle of Modern Dentistry

On the sidewalk in front of an old-fashioned white frame house at 349 East State Street, in Jacksonville, there is embedded a brass historical marker which explains that this dwelling was the home, from 1865 to 1897, of Dr. Greene Vardiman Black, now generally known as the "father of modern dentistry." This house, however, is not the only memorial to the great American dentist. A life-size statue of him stands in Lincoln Park, Chicago. At the dental school of Northwestern University his early dental office in Jacksonville has been set up as a museum exhibit.​a There is also a bust of him in the University of London.

In an article on Dr. Black in the Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for 1931, we are told by the author, Bessie M. Black, that "the life history of Greene Vardiman Black is the story of a self-reliant, self-educated man of rare talents and unusual ability, who contributed much to the dignity of the dental profession and to the development of science in general." The Dictionary of American Biography says that "he was accorded numerous honors, including the presidency of the National Dental Association in 1901, the first International Miller Prize in 1910, and honorary degrees from five institutions."

It was after serving in the Civil War, during which he was injured  p75 in the knee, that Dr. Black came to Jacksonville and set up a dentist's office overlooking the public square — the same office which has been reconstructed by Northwestern University. A year later his first wife died. She was the mother of Dr. Carl E. Black of Jacksonville, who has written of his renowned father in From Pioneer to Scientist. After his second marriage, in 1865, Dr. Black acquired the two‑story frame house in East State Street from a furniture dealer named Branson and here the dentist lived until he moved of the Chicago.

At the time Dr. Black purchased this house, according to information uncovered by Miss Janette C. Powell, a Jacksonville historian and writer, he decided to combine his office and home. Accordingly, he built a two‑story east wing with two rooms on each floor. The front room on the first floor was the reception room and in the other Dr. Black set up his operating room, the dental chair being placed in a bay window on the east wall. His laboratory was on the second floor.

It was in this laboratory that Dr. Black created one of the first cord dental engines. Here, too, he carried on dental experiments which soon brought him national attention. During these years, also, he wrote the first of his articles on dentistry; articles which were to grow in number as his activities widened.

"Before Dr. Black became so deeply involved in research that he had little time for recreation," writes Miss Powell, "the Black home was something of a social center and here 'open house' was always maintained to men of distinction who came to Jacksonville. For many years a 'family hour' was observed after dinner — an hour devoted to pleasant conversation and music. Dr. Black played the cello and violin well and enjoyed singing. There were several scientific groups in the town who frequently met in his home."

When Dr. Black was appointed professor of dental pathology and bacteriology at Northwestern University dental school in 1891 he spent more of his time in Chicago than in Jacksonville. Finally, when he was named dean of the Northwestern dental school in 1897, he gave up his residence in Jacksonville and established a permanent home in Chicago. There he lived and achieved renown in science; there he died in 1915.

After the departure of Dr. Black from Jacksonville the house in East State Street was occupied by his son, Dr. Carl E. Black, who became a leading physician of Jacksonville. The younger Dr. Black lived here and maintained his office here for some twenty years. The house is now owned by MacMurray College, pioneer institution founded in 1846 and located near the old Dr. Black home.

Thayer's Note:

a Northwestern University Dental School closed its doors in 2001, although for a time after that it still had a webpage with photos of the first graduating class (1894) and the last (2001). With the continued shrinkage of the Web, the page has disappeared, but not before yours truly noticed that in the older class, not a man is showing his teeth, but almost all the men and women in 2001 gave the camera broad toothy smiles: good dentistry has allowed this to become part of today's mores.

Not long before the passing of the school at Northwestern University, its dental museum had already been dismantled; Dr. Black's office, however, was of great enough historical value that the Smithsonian promptly snapped it up, and his equipment at least, though not yet its original setting, is now (2007) on display at the Harris National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore: I am indebted to Ron Sims of Northwestern's Galter Health Sciences Library for this information — and the interested student of such matters is referred to his detailed Guide to the Digitized Collection of G. V. Black Manuscripts, Correspondence and Photographs.

[image ALT: A photograph of a 19c dentist's office. It is the house of Dr. Greene Vardiman Black in Jacksonville, Illinois.]

Dr. Black's "operatory", as set up in 1926 in the G. V. Black Museum.

Photo © Galter Health Sciences Library, by kind permission.

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Page updated: 4 Dec 17