Who was Thomas Lewis Gilmer, M.D., D.D.S.?

   Return Home

Thomas Lewis (T.L.) Gilmer (1849-1931)

Born in Lincoln County, Missouri in 1849, Thomas L. Gilmer received his D.D.S. degree in 1882 from the Missouri Dental College* and his M.D. degree from the Quincy College of Medicine in 1885. Gilmer's study of dentistry and medicine was not surprising; he was a member of the fifth generation of his family to practice medicine in America. Gilmer's great-great grandfather, George Gilmer had begun his practice in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1731.

Gilmer practiced medicine and dentistry in Quincy, Illinois from 1882 to 1889. After receiving his medical degree, Gilmer served as Oral Surgeon at St. Mary's Hospital in Quincy and taught microscopy and histology at the Quincy College of Medicine**. He joined the Illinois State Dental Society in 1872 and must have been a young man of some influence, and renown, as he was elected president of the Illinois State Dental Society for the year 1883-1884. He would have been merely 34 years old at the time.

Gilmer moved to Chicago in 1889, serving as adjunct professor of Oral Surgery at the Chicago College of Dental Surgery (1889-1990). In 1891 Gilmer was a founder, and the key player in the establishment of the Northwestern University Dental School, serving as its' third dean and professor of Oral Surgery. Gilmer was a founder of the Institute of Medicine in Chicago, serving on its' Board of Governors and as its' President. Northwestern University awarded Gilmer an honorary Sc.D. degree in 1911.

The immobilization of a fractured mandible using wire intermaxillary fixation involving the mandibular and maxillary teeth- Gilmer's Splint- was named after T.L. Gilmer. He was the author of a number of abstracts in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), including A Study of the Bacteriology of Alveolar Abcess and Infected Root Canals; Conservative Surgery for the Treatment of Diseases of the Mandible; Multiple Fracture of the Lower Jaw Complicated by Double Fracture of the Upper Jaw, among others.

On Tuesday evening, March 23, 1920, the Chicago Dental Society gave a testimonial banquet in honor of T.L. Gilmer in the Gold Room of the Congress Hotel, Chicago, "in recognition of the splendid service he has rendered the dental profession. Dr. Gilmer's entire professional life has been spent in the advancement and progress of dentistry, always striving for the highest and continually inciting others by precept and example to practice and preach scientific dentistry with clean minds, clean hearts and clean hands. Distinguished speakers from every section of our own country and Canada will be with us on this occasion to help us honor this worthy man."

As he was a founder of the dental school at Northwestern University and a faculty member, Gilmer was an extremely close friend of one of the most famous dentists in all of America- G.V. Black. Indeed, Gilmer is named as "....an intimate friend of Dr. Black since the beginning of his practice" in The Dental Review obituary of G.V. Black in 1915. The timeline of when the paths of Gilmer and Black would have intersected at Northwestern dental school would be from Black's arrival at the university in 1896 until his death. T.L. Gilmer was 13 years younger than his more famous colleague.


Greene Vardiman (G.V.) Black (1836-1915)

G.V. Black was born in a farm in Winchester, Illinois on August 3, 1836. He had a meager educational advantage by going a few months each year in winter to a new-room school near his father's farm. He showed very little interest in school, however preferring to wander through the woods studying nature and wild-life which developed his keen sense of observation and an analytical mind which in turn turned out to be the foundation of his life's achievement.

At the age of seventeen he decided to study medicine at his brother Thomas G. Black's office who was a practicing physician in Clayton, Illinois. After his 4 years of study (1853-56) gaining knowledge in anatomy and medicine he studied dentistry under J.C. Speer, who was a practicing dentist in nearby Mt.Sterling, Illinois. He read and twice re-read the only book on dentistry that Dr.Speer owned. He assisted Dr. Speer in his work for a few months and with this little formal education and his knowledge of basic sciences he set up his dental practice in Jacksonville, Illinois in 1856. From here he became a very well known and respected practitioner of dentistry. In 1862 Black enlisted in the 129th Illinois Volunteers and served as an army scout. A serious war injury and six months of recovery in a Louisville hospital, led to Black's discharge in 1863.

After the Civil War, Black opened a dental practice in Jacksonville, Illinois and there began the research, experimentation and teaching that helped change the practice of dentistry. Studies in chemistry and physics led to Black's research on gold foil and the effects of certain gases on its cohesive properties. Black studied histology and became a proficient microscopist. In 1870 Black invented a cord-driven dental engine- the first of this kind ever constructed. He invented and patented a foot motor, and a tool for lettering marble and stone. He was one of the first to use nitrous oxide gas as an anesthetic in dentistry. In 1896 Dr. Black closed his private Jacksonville practice and accepted an appointment to the faculty of the Northwestern University Dental School. He was elected Dean the following year, in 1897, where he served until his death in 1915. It is this association with Northwestern University where he was a colleague of Dr. T.L. Gilmer.

It is impossible 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.

There are but a few men who lift the age they inhabit to unknown heights until all men walk on higher ground- and Black was truly one of them. He never believed in practicing what at-the-time was a mechanical art of dentistry that was taught in the pre-scientific era, but he instead led the field of dentistry to the status of a dignified, scientific and highly skilled profession which in turn has evolved into a subspecialty of surgery and medicine.

The formula for amalgam that Black worked out is almost unchanged to this day. He even gave away his classification of dental caries and standardized dental terminologies. Dr. Black gave to the profession the current scheme of nomenclature and classification of dental operating instruments. He established principles governing the design of cavities and he published his concept Extension for Prevention in 1891 in an article in Dental Cosmos titled Management of Enamel Margins. The wisdom of his work remained unchallenged for almost a century. Black invented an electric thermostat, a micrometer for measuring amalgam expansion, a machine for grinding sections of teeth and a microtome. Other inventions include several dynamometers: the manudyamometer (for measuring finger pressure), the tupfodynamometer (for measuring the force of mallet blows), the phagodynamometer (for measuring the amount of force required to masticate various foods), and the gnathodynamomoter (for measuring the strength of the bite).

Some of the outstanding books published by G.V.Black are Formation of Poisons by Micro­organisms; The Periosteum and the Periodontal Membrane; Operative Dentistry (2 volumes) and Special Dental Pathology. He has held innumerable respectable positions in the field of dentistry such as President of the Illinois State Dental society, Illinois State Dental Board of Dental Examiners, Chairman of the Section of Etiology, Pathology & Bacteriology at the World Colombian Dental Congress, Professor of Dental Pathology (Chicago College of Dental Surgery & Northwestern University Dental School) and also the Dean of the Northwestern University Dental School to just name a few.

He had won the 'Miller Prize' for his contribution to the advancement of dentistry, awarded the Doctor of Science degree by the Missouri Dental College and later by the Illinois College & University, the Doctor of Medicine degree by Chicago Medical College and Doctor of Laws degree by the North Western University Dental School. The Dental Society of the state of New York also awarded him the 'Fellowship Medal'. These high positions and responsibility had him working throughout the day and late into the night, he still found time for his passion for music. He was a musician of ability who played the piano, violin, cello, piccolo, flute and the cornet. To gratify his love for nature and travel, it was his custom to spend a month each summer in the woods or in travel. He even designed his own sloop-rigged boat and named it `Microbe'.

Black was also an originator of the concept of continuing eduction. His quote- "The professional man has no right other than to be a continuous student" has been co-opted by many other organizations. Black made a prophetic statement in an address to students- "The day is surely coming and perhaps within the lifetime of you young men before me when we will be engaged in practicing preventive rather than reparative dentistry". Black died on August 31, 1915 at the age of 79 years, leaving behind his wife and a rich heritage of four children of the same sterling qualities and was buried at the Diamond Grove Cemetery, Jacksonville.

Pierre Fauchard, of France, is considered the "Father of Modern Dentistry". Modern, in the sense that as a physician, he brought dentistry from the dark ages into the mainstream scientific community of the early 1700's. Fauchard's "modern" could be considered the First modern era. G.V. Black, some 200 years later, is credited with establishing dentistry as a scientific profession built around research and commonly held medical practices. Blacks' work could be considered the Second modern era. It is without a doubt that without Blacks' research and vision of the profession as preventive in nature, we could not have entered into the Third modern era from about 1960 to the end of the 20th Century, which has now evolved into the Fourth modern era with the advent of 3D computer technology, genetics, and the scientific understanding of how the health of the mouth affects so many organs and systems in the rest of the body.

Black's life as a naturalist, musician, artist, scientist, physician, surgeon and a practicing dentist indicate that he was truly a legend in his own time.

What is up with his unusual name? Each name is a color- Vardiman is a shade of light purple.


* Established in 1866 by the Missouri State Dental Association, the Missouri Dental College was the first dental school west of the Mississippi River and the sixth such school in the nation. The school was initially affiliated with the St. Louis Medical College before becoming a part of Washington University as the Washington University School of Dental Medicine. Though regarded as one of the top schools in United States, the enormous cost of maintaining a private dental school was finally too much. The dental school closed in 1991 and the Washington University School of Medicine at the Barnes-Jewish Hospital complex consumed the space during a large expansion project.

** The Quincy College of Medicine occupied, from 1875-1899, the former John Wood Octagonal Mansion on the north side of State Street, between 11th and 12th Streets, along with Vickers Hall, a building to the immediate west. Both were a part of Chaddock College, which bought the property from John Wood. While a part of Chaddock College, the John Wood Octagonal house was known as "College Hall". Vickers Hall became a dormitory. It is unknown when the College of Medicine was closed, but Chaddock College as a whole became Chaddock Boys School and eventually just "Chaddock". Chaddock Boys School moved from the Octagonal house in 1920 and the property became the St. Peter's Roman Catholic Parochial School from 1920 to 1949, during which time the Octagonal house was known as "Kerr Hall". Both Vickers Hall and the John Wood Octagonal Mansion were razed in the 1950's for construction of the Union United Methodist Church that currently occupies the property.

Bibliography for Gilmer and Black:

  • Washington University School of Dental Medicine "Legacy of Acheivement- Thomas L. Gilmer".http://beckerexhibits.wustl.edu/dental/bios/#gilmer

  • Washington University School of Dental Medicine "Legacy of Acheivement- G.V. Black". http://beckerexhibits.wustl.edu/dental/articles/Black_Schewe.html

  • Reuben, Joseph. The Father of Modern Dentistry - Dr. Greene Vardiman Black(1836-1915). J Conserv Dent [serial online] 2005 [cited 2014 Nov 2];8:5-6. Available from: http://www.jcd.org.in/text.asp?2005/8/2/5/42597

  • http://www.jcd.org.in/article.asp?issn=0972-0707;year=2005;volume=8;issue=2;spage=5;epage=6;aulast=Joseph - top

  • Dunning, WB. Greene Vardiman Black. Journal of the Allied Dental Societies 10(4) Dec. 1915:409-417. Available from: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~pfa/denthist/articles/Dunning1915.html

  • http://www.johntippet.com/tippe0004.htm



  •    Return Home