Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
The children were desperate: they touted “furred” tongues, “foul gasses emitted from the mouths,” their bodies “veritable hotbeds for every species of bacteria.” Some couldn’t even attend school, painful abcesses on their faces misdiagnosed, thought to be infectious.
In late 19th century Toronto, where was a poor kid with bad teeth to turn? Dental hygiene wasn’t on the radar for many people, especially when they couldn’t afford to see a dentist. As a result, children often suffered from tooth pain and other, nastier symptoms of bad teeth.
Before John Gennings Curtis Adams opened North America’s first free dentistry clinic in Toronto in 1872, they had nowhere to go. Many children’s teeth would have rotted out if it wasn’t for one man with a passion for dentistry—and for charity.
April is Oral Health Month, and it would likely make Dr. John G.C. Adams very pleased to know that people take their teeth seriously these days.
Adams started off as a farmer in a small town west of Toronto, but moved his family to Toronto in 1870 to study dentistry under his older half-brother, W. Case Adams. But Adams wasn’t just struck with a sudden desire for oral health—he was driven by a missionary desire to help the poor (moral health, perhaps). Today, on the plaque devoted to him, he’s heralded as “Canada’s first resident dental missionary.”
After two years of dental training, Adams opened his free dental hospital for poor children and their mothers (two years before he received his licence to practice). He paid for the treatments at the free clinic, using the profits from his dental practice. Adams and his wife, Sarah, would also visit orphanages and poor houses where he provided dental care.
When the Hospital for Sick Children opened in 1875, Adams became its first “dentist of record” in 1883. He was the only dentist at Sick Kids until 1890.
He checked teeth at the clinic but his missionary zeal also led him to advocate for dental exams into Toronto schools. In his book School Children’s Teeth: Their Universally Unhealthy and Neglected Condition (subtitled “The Only Practical Remedy: Dental Public School Inspection and Hospitals for the Poor), published in 1896, he lists his three goals for the publication. He hoped the book would encourage “the Christian people” to do something to preserve children’s teeth, help children save their teeth “with as little suffering and expense as possible,” and “improve the health of the children of the schools. The object of the dentist should be to prevent suffering rather than to relieve it.”
Adams argued that children were suffering needlessly, that they should have dental exams twice a year to screen for any issue, and the dentist should prepare a report for parents with treatment options. In a 1901 statement to premier George William Ross, Adams said “there are not less than one million permanent teeth going to destruction in the mouths of the school children of Ontario.”
He, along with one of his sons who also became a dentist, inspected the oral health of schoolchildren across Ontario and even in the U.S. In School Children’s Teeth, Adams described the travels by saying, “God has enlarged the mission field so that now it takes in the whole continent, for He is sending me out everywhere to protest against the present heathenish and inhuman custom of extracting the permanent teeth out of the jaws of young children.”
And if this doesn’t convince you that dentistry is vital and fascinating work, Adams goes on to assure readers the subject is “thrilling with interest.” Adams argues that after all of the inspections he’d done, he felt that adults, like him, had better teeth than 95 per cent of children. Children he saw in schools had cavities that hadn’t been filled and were now decaying the teeth too much, because parents, even those who could afford to, didn’t realize the importance of oral health.
By 1910, the Public School Act of Ontario allowed school dental inspections, after years of lobbying by the Ontario Dental Association. In 1913, the City opened the first free, municipally funded dental clinic in Canada.
Despite his successful legacy, Adams faced tough times in the final years of the 19th century. His wife, Sarah, died in 1896 and Adams dedicated his Christ’s Mission Hall and Dental Institute, which was at the corner of Bay and Elm Streets, near where the University of Toronto Faculty of Dentistry is today, to her and to his mother. In 1899, his teacher and older brother W. Case Adams died and he lost his dental hospital because of unpaid taxes ($200 total).
He continued to work in a private practice until 1912, and died in 1922.
With files from David Wencer
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