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Some say Rice University, opened in 1912, is the oldest institution of higher education in Houston. Not so. The UTHealth School of Dentistry takes the honor when you consider the school’s history traces back to 1905.
That was the year Howard Hughes was born in our city, and an unknown named Albert Einstein was delivering a guest lecture in New York City on a new theory he had about relativity. Houston had about 70,000 residents in 1905, and most worked in the downtown area and rode one of seven trolley lines to work. Closer to home in 1905, a wealthy Houston lumberman named John Henry Kirby, the namesake for Kirby Drive, must have had a bad day at the dentist’s.
It was Kirby who insisted it was time for his city to have dentists who were actually trained in dentistry. After all, there were no dental schools in Texas and not that many in the country. The so-called “dentists” practicing their trade around town were not so happy about a plan to educate and certify dental professionals. Competition with real dentists was not on their list of good ideas.
Kirby and a handful of business associates raised $9,000 and recruited a well-educated local dentist with a great name, Olympio Gambati, who also agreed it was time to get serious about dental education in Houston. They called the new school the Texas Dental College. The college was initially housed in bargain spaces in three old downtown buildings near Market Square and by 1925 had its own building. The college would be proprietary, seeking to make a profit. A handful of early students were recruited in 1905 and taught by local faculty who also shared the vision. It was a hard go to make a profit, but the dean, faculty and the trustees were determined and worked tirelessly. As funds ran short they moved from building to building, wherever cheaper rent or borrowed space could be found.
By 1925 they even opened their own building at Blodgett Street and Fannin Street, but what they really needed was a university affiliation, given the trend in medical and dental education was to have accredited, university-affiliated programs that combined education with research and patient care. The school’s board comprised respected community business leaders and dentists who measured their success not in profits (there were few) but in student outcomes.
One 1908 graduate of the school was Ralph C. Cooley, who would become a highly respected dentist in Houston and one day serve on the dental college’s board himself. He always planned for his youngest son, Denton, to follow him into the field of dentistry, but that is another story. In time, Kirby would become a patient of Cooley’s, and Kirby’s bad days at the dentist’s would become a distant memory.
As Gambati announced intentions to retire after 25 years as the Texas Dental College’s founding dean, board members began a search for his replacement who would lead the financially stretched proprietary school into the future with a much-needed university affiliation. They found that dean in Frederick C. Elliott, a Kansas City Dental College graduate who actually took a pay cut to come to Houston. The son of a pharmacist, Elliott was born in Pittsburg, Kan., in 1893 and died in 1986. His dad expected him to one day run the family’s pharmacy, but Fred found dentistry a stronger calling.
While we’re connecting dots, I should add that upon dental school graduation Elliott opened his first office in the Wirthin Building in downtown Kansas City. Another young man was launching his career in that same building drawing cartoon characters. Elliott would see him about the building and probably wondered how one could make a living drawing ducks and mice. His new friend: Walt Disney.
Upon Elliott’s arrival in Houston in 1932, he and his wife, Ann, were first shown around Houston by one of the dental college’s faculty, Walter Cronkite, Sr. Each morning, Elliott’s newspaper would be tossed into the yard by Cronkite’s son, Walter. Who would have known that one day Walter Cronkite Jr. would be named “the most trusted man in America” and deliver the news to Elliott and the world via a different medium: television.
In 1991, I had the opportunity to write the 50th anniversary video script for The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and asked the younger Cronkite to narrate. He accepted. The next thing I knew I was sitting with him in CBS studios in New York comparing stories about the Texas Dental College and his early days in Houston. Those stories provide future dots to connect.
Elliott would delay cashing his paycheck many a month just to get the school’s budget back on track. In his spare time, he sought a university affiliation and noted he could not remember how many trips he made to Austin to meet with UT officials and legislators. But he did know he wore out his old Chevrolet during those years as the odometer reached more than 100,000 miles before the car gave out. His work was rewarded on May 14, 1943, when the Legislature authorized Texas Dental College to become “The University of Texas School of Dentistry” on Sept. 1, 1943. Eventually, the school would change its name to “UT Dental Branch,” which is now the UTHealth School of Dentistry.
Elliott planned and designed the new Dental Branch building, which was opened June 6, 1955, in the Texas Medical Center next to Lee Clark’s new cancer hospital. With his mission completed, he stepped into the role of director – now called president – of the new Texas Medical Center. Ernst Bertner, the beloved founding director, had died in 1950, and few were considered more dedicated and capable of meeting the demands of TMC leadership than Elliott.
Elliott would work with the MD Anderson Foundation trustees, Colonel William Bates, John Freeman, and Horace Wilkins, along with founding leaders of our early institutions such as Dr. Michael DeBakey of Baylor and Lee Clark of MD Anderson to add more UT-operated schools, a campus wide library, energy cooperative, and essential planning and infrastructure to support the rapid growth to follow. Wisely, Elliott would include Chauncey Leake, who led the UT Medical Branch in Galveston from 1942 to 1955.
Of significance to UTHealth, Leake was among the first to congratulate Elliott on the UT dental school affiliation and suggest adding a school of medical geography, which was focused on epidemiology and population-based health initiatives. The concept of placing a public health school in the new medical center was approved in principle by the Texas Legislature in 1947, but not until 1967 was funding appropriated to open our UT School of Public Health in 1969 under the leadership of an outstanding dean and epidemiologist, Reuel Stallones.
As for dental education in Houston, who would have known that a bad day at the dentist’s for John Kirby so many years ago would result in so much? Next time you visit our School of Dentistry in its new building on the South Campus, take a moment to view the school’s historical exhibit and tribute to Elliott in the building’s first-floor lobby. The success story that is our School of Dentistry today is about more than history. It’s about more than 11,000 graduates since 1905, including 6,000 dentists practicing today throughout Texas and beyond. The school has also graduated nearly 2,000 dental hygienist alums and 1,500 postgraduate specialists. In hindsight, it seems a given that John Kirby, way back in 1905, had one very good idea.
‘Bout Time is about connecting our past to our present. Dr. Bryant Boutwell is the John P. McGovern Professor of Oslerian Medicine at the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics and a Distinguished Teaching Professor. He is the author of two books on the history of Houston and the Texas Medical Center and writes this column to share the stories of our past—stories that define who we are and how we got here.
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