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Dr. Jessie K. Garnett: The first black woman to practice dentistry in the Hub

Pioneer dentist paved the way for blacks and women with career that spanned decades

Anthony W. Neal | 5/19/2016, 6 a.m.
Dr. Jessie Katherine (Gideon) Garnett was the first black woman to graduate from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and ...
Jessie Garnett as a young woman.

Dr. Jessie Katherine (Gideon) Garnett was the first black woman to graduate from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and also the first to practice dentistry in Boston.

She was born April 20, 1897, in Liverpool, Nova Scotia. Her mother, widowed seamstress Mary E. Gideon, brought her to Boston when she was eleven years old — along with her younger brother, John, and her two older sisters, Lillian and Annie. The Gideon family found their first home at 4 Smiths Avenue. In 1913, they moved to 683 Shawmut Avenue in Roxbury.

Undoubtedly influenced by her two older sisters, who pursued occupations in the medical field as nurses, Jessie Gideon was intent on becoming a dentist. She graduated from Girls’ High School on June 22, 1916, and then attended Tufts College and Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. She recalled that when she enrolled at the dental school, a dean insisted that there was a mistake. After acknowledging that Gideon had in fact been accepted, he warned her, “You’ll have to find your own patients, you know.” The strong-willed student replied, “That will be just fine with me.”

Garnett retired in 1969.

Garnett retired in 1969.

A first

On June 21, 1920, Tufts University School of Dental Medicine conferred upon Gideon the degree of Doctor of Dental Medicine, making her the first black woman graduate of the dental school. And of the 34 students who were awarded doctorate degrees from the dental school that day, she was the only woman. That same year, she married Robert Charles Garnett, a Boston police officer connected to Station 5. They had two children: Robert Charles Garnett Jr., born January 5, 1922, and Ella Isabelle Garnett, born December 15, 1924. Robert Jr. became a draftsman and Ella found employment as a clerk in the General Land Office in Washington, D.C.

Garnett opened her first dental office at 795 Tremont Street — at the intersection with Camden Street in Lower Roxbury. During a 1973 interview with Globe reporter Carmen Fields, she told her that the first years of practice were not good.

“Business was slow, and I’d putter around my office going in and out of the laboratory pretending to be busy,” she said. Eventually, a man came in and asked if she thought she could pull his bad tooth. Garnett answered, “Well, sit down and I’ll try.”

By 1922, she had moved her home and dental office around the block to 612 Columbus Avenue, where both remained until 1929. She then relocated with her family to 80 Munroe Street in Roxbury and built an office behind her residence. Before disabling arthritis in her hands forced her to retire in 1969, she had practiced dentistry for nearly 50 years.

Garnett and six other college-educated black women — among them, Edna Robinson Brown, the first black woman to practice dentistry in Cambridge — met at the Phillips Brooks House on the campus of Harvard University in 1926, and in the spirit of sisterhood, scholarship and service, they became charter members of the Psi Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. Founded in 1908 at Howard University, Alpha Kappa Alpha is the oldest predominately black national sorority in the United States. In 1976, the Psi Omega Chapter established the Dr. Jessie Garnett-Dr. Mary Thompson Scholarship Award for black women students at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. For 90 years, that chapter has been committed to promoting leadership development among African American women, supporting scholarship awards to promising young women, and providing financial and in-kind assistance to organizations contributing to the general welfare of Boston’s African American community.

Garnett was a member of the board of Freedom House, a nonprofit community-based organization in the Grove Hall section of Boston, and a member of the NAACP. She also served on the boards of the Boston YMCA and St. Mark’s Congregational Church in Roxbury. She died suddenly while attending Sunday service at that church on September 5, 1976. She was 79.