George Eastman Popularizes Preventive Dental Care

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1915

By the time his company Eastman Kodak became a secure juggernaut in the early 1900s, George Eastman was one of the richest men in the world, but he had lost interest in accumulating wealth. He was gripped by a powerful desire to put his funds to work in the rest of society. Throughout the next couple decades he would give away more than any other American except John Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. In current dollars, his gifts totaled in the range of $2 billion.

Two of his most important efforts were medical. Having built extensive hospital complexes throughout his hometown of Rochester, New York, he single-handedly created the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and shaped it according to the bold new scientific principles espoused by Abraham Flexner. The pairing of medicine and dentistry was quite intentional. Eastman recognized how painful and socially crippling oral illnesses and disabilities could be. And long before there was research proving this, he suspected that dental problems could lead to wider infections and degrade one’s health generally.

Eastman was ahead of his time in emphasizing prevention in medicine, and especially in dentistry, where preventative care and the professional dental hygienists he promoted were nearly unknown in his day. After founding the Rochester Dental Dispensary in 1915, he went on to establish additional dental clinics serving children—not only throughout the U.S. but also across Europe. He persuaded other philanthropists like the Guggenheims in New York and Lord Riddell in London to subsidize dental facilities as well.

Children up to age 16 could visit any of Eastman’s clinics at a cost to their indigent parents of a nickel per visit. In addition to work on their teeth, all children were checked for nose, throat, and mouth defects. Orthodontia was offered, and it thrilled Eastman that children not only had their appearances improved but also “improvements in speech were obtained.” He pushed to bring hygienists into schools, encouraged the use of X-rays to diagnose dental health, and underwrote scientific training of dental interns.

“There is nothing I am more interested in than public health,” Eastman told the governor of New York in 1922. The dental clinics were his very favorite projects, which brought him satisfaction to the end of his life. “Dollar for dollar, I got more from my investment” in them, Eastman told the Saturday Evening Post, “than from anything else to which I contributed.” In the process, George Eastman did more to elevate modern dental health than perhaps any other giver ever.