Women in Dentistry


by Rosa Maria Gonzalez Ortiz, CD & Martha Diaz de Kuri, CD. – Regardless of the fact that females have been present in every field of universal knowledge, history bears little trace of this fact. This points to cultural patterns that favor the accomplishments of men over women. This paper reports in a schematic way, on the presence and significance of dental practice by women worldwide, and in particular in Mexico. The role of women since prehistoric times that of taking care of the family would lead them to see illness and to seek remedies for it. Since oral problems were so common these were given a fair amount of attention. We can learn about medical practice for women in ancient civilizations from paintings and engravings as well as other art forms. Literature and ceramics have been very helpful in this respect…



Regardless of the fact that females have been present in every field of universal knowledge, history bears little trace of this fact. This points to cultural patterns that favor the accomplishments of men over women. This paper reports in a schematic way, on the presence and significance of dental practice by women worldwide, and in particular in Mexico.

The role of women since prehistoric times that of taking care of the family would lead them to see illness and to seek remedies for it. Since oral problems were so common these were given a fair amount of attention. We can learn about medical practice for women in ancient civilizations from paintings and engravings as well as other art forms. Literature and ceramics have been very helpful in this respect.

The Talmud, one of the sacred books of the Jews, mentions a woman who treated dental pain with expertise. In ancient Greece, there were numerous cases of women practicing medicine and related activities such as pharmaceutics. In the Roman Empire we find reference to women in different branches of medicine. For instance, the goddess, Meditrina,is immortalized in a beautiful sculpture now housed by the Musee des Antiquites Nationales de d’Saint Germain, France.

As for Japan, it is worthwhile mentioning, the case of the Buddhist priestess Nakaoka Tei, known as Hotokehime, or Lady of Buddha, who in the 14th century constructed an entire set of teeth for herself. This beautifully carved piece of cherry wood is on display in the Tokyo Museum as a discrete witness of the abilities and knowledge of this notable woman.

In this same museum, we find a document that describes the technique employed: a cast was made in beeswax to show the anatomy of the edentulous maxilla in order to carve in wood the missing pieces. To make adjustments along the way, color was applied to identify places that required prosthetics. It is imagined that this set of teeth was not the only one fabricated by the Lady of Buddha.

In regard to medieval European medicine, we present the case of the Abbess, Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1099-1179), who summarizes her knowledge of medical sciences in her book, “Liber Simplicis Medicinae.” She makes reference to dental treatments based on herbs, and mentions the need to drain dental abscesses to facilitate the expulsion of pus. This manuscript is one of the most important treatises on the subject during the following centuries. (It is possible to buy copies of contemporary editions.)

During a large part of the Middle Ages, there was systematic prosecution of women in medicine. They were sentenced to die. This, obviously, limited the development of their activities. Many of the women who knew how to heal practiced this fearfully, and in secret, and as a consequence did not leave any trace of their activity. It was unthinkable that the female would have a place in the medicine lectures in Medieval and Renaissance universities such as Salerno, Bologna, Montpellier, Paris, Oxford or Salamanca-

In the medical book of Rolando de Parma (14th century), one can identify a woman placing a bandage around the jaw of a patient, possibly to stabilize a fracture. Female assistants undoubtedly frequently practiced in health services. Many times, doctors were assisted by their wives, daughters or sisters.

Phlebotomist-barbers proliferated in Europe in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and practiced bloodletting and dental extraction in public squares, fairs and roads with women assistants as is seen in many engravings of the period.


The main area for female dental assistants in the 18th century was France. This is patent in a brief dentistry treatise of Mademoiselle Reze, that was printed a few years before Pierre Fauchard’s “Le Chirugien Dentiste.” Reze records all that she was capable of doing and recommended the use of a marvelous balm which:

“cleanses rotting teeth, gets rid of bad odour, by its detergent and astringent qualities, it solidifies teeth, cures ulcers or small eruptions that affect gums and it dissipates scurvy humour .” 1

In the 19th century cultures were far from accepting these practices as is patent in the 1775 law that prohibited women from practicing surgery However, the development that the sciences went through in France, motivated some women to break into dentistry. Such was the case of Madame Ana, who announced herself as “dentist for women,” in a clinic on the Rue Rivoli in Paris. She was famous for having looked after the teeth of members of royalty like the Duchess of Angouleme and Mademoiselle Ellen d’Saint Hilarie. Toward the end of that century, Helene Purkis was already announcing in the city’s newspapers offering to “replace teeth with no pain, cauterize them, and make cast gold fillings.” She also sold her own Diapbenix Elixir. Spanish history of the 19th century holds two similar cases. One of these female dentists was Polonia Sanz from Zaragoza. These women had to overcome numerous obstacles to devote themselves to these and other activities traditionally practiced by males.



In prehispanic medicine in Mexico, women were always present. Female hands collected medicinal plants and classified them for later use in medicaments. Among the Aztec gods and goddesses, we can find female deities like Tlazolteotl and Tzapotlatenan, goddesses of healing and medicine respectively. In the 16th century Fray Diego de Landa mentions some of the medical practices of the Mayans carried out by women:

“They had as a custom to sharpen their teeth for purposes of gallantry; this job was carried out by old women that utilized certain rocks and water.” 2

[Margarita Chorney Salazar]

Indigenous medicine that survives to date is still practiced by both men and women who have inherited the knowledge from their ancestors.

During the colonial years women did no participate in medical practice as it was brought from Spain. The medical school of the Royal and Pontifici University of Mexico did not register a single female student. In the same way, it was only men who were barber phlebotomists and who performed tooth extractions and bloodletting.

It was at the end of the 19th century that the scene started to change.

“The options for a decent woman to make a living in the city during the 19th century were not many: ladies in the lower classes could serve as domestic employees or factory workers, as in the flourishing tobacco industry. Middle-lower class ladies could opt for sewing or nursing, which were self taught in those days, or possibly venture into bureaucracy Department stores such as “El Puerto do Veracruz,” “La Francis Maritima,” or “El Centro Mercantil,” also employed females in women’s departments, but preferred ladies of foreign types, as they advertised in the newspapers.” 3


Dentistry that was developing rapidly in their countries arrived in Mexico in the 19th century, brought over mainly by French and North Americans. Among the first few dentists were a couple of women: Anne Marie Page and Mademoiselle Duval. The first one, Anne Marie Page started to advertise in Mexican newspapers as was customary in those days. Her ads read:

“She has arrived in this city to attend particularly the beautiful Mexican ladies, and offer her services in all fields of minor surgery, appliance of leeches, caustic remedies, vents and open cuttings. Also, at comfortable prices, she offers powders, opiates, essences and all that is required to heal the pains of the mouth and teeth and to preserve them healthy and clean.” 4

Fifty years later the first ads of the French Mademoiselle Duval, who was said had studied at the Paris Faculty appeared. She offered to practice:

“empastings, gold fillings, prosthetic teeth, painless extractions, free lessons in: perostytis, phystula, scurvy ulcers, cancer; of how these are created, how they can be prevented, and how they can be cured. I recommend my special powders for dental hygiene, as well as cavity prevention. Also liquid for molar pain.” 5

As did Anne Marie Page, Mademoiselle Duval emphasized that her clientele was formed mainly by women, because men would not allow other men’s hands to touch their wive’s or daughter’s faces.


Toward the end of the 19th century there were 43 male dentists in Mexico City. They were mainly foreign or had been directly trained by foreigners due to the lack of a dental school in the country Anyone willing to practice had to obtain permission from the authorities through an examination at the Medical Faculty. Apart from this and other requirements, there had to be a letter from a renowned dentist to validate the candidate’s abilities.

In 1886, an unusual happening moved the health sector. This was the graduation of the first female dentist in the country, Margarita Chorné y Salazar. This young lady had first learned in the dental clinic of her father, and later had completed her training with Doctor Chacon. Doctors Augustin and Rafael Chorné, father and brother of Margarita, were associated with one of the most prestigious clinics in Mexico, in which they practiced accurate and painless extractions and dental surgery, using ether as an anesthetic.

The jury that gave Margarita’s final examination was formed of three prestigious teachers of the medical school who were particularly meticulous in questioning her. Miss Chorné had prepared so meticulously, that she had no trouble in answering every question, mainly about anatomy of head and materia medica as pharmacology was called in those days. The audience, that silently filled the venue was pleasantly surprised to hear the candidate answer every question in Spanish and also French, which she had learned in order to read medical texts. The news caused numerous comments, both for and against:

“The Mexican people now have a young lady competent in dentistry, that will open the field of dental surgery to other women.” 6

Some columnists feared that many young women would be eager to follow Margarita’s footsteps endangering the stability of Mexican homes that needed women to look after their families more than venturing into masculine occupations. Doctor Chorn practiced her profession faithfully and formally for over forty years. In 1908 she was cited by the French government for being the first Latin-American woman to graduate in a liberal profession. Probably without meaning to, Margarita had given a great leap to situate women solidly into male dominated society, not only as the wife or companion, but also as a collaborator or competitor.

Towards the end of the 19th century, two women followed Margarita’s steps: Cleotilde Castaneda (1890) and Monica Correa (1896). In the last two decades of that century, dentists made important advances: they organised in work unions, started publishing magazines, organized world congresses, and advanced proposals to create a dental school in Mexico. However, there is no evidence that the first three women in the profession participated in these group activities.

The 20th Century

The 20th Century is seen as the time in history in which women revolutionized their destinies and identities. To achieve this, two factors were key: birth control and professional practice.

The first dental school in the country was inaugurated in 1904 in Mexico City and named “Consultorio Nacional de Ensenanza Dental.”

In its early stage it was still an annex to the medical school. This was obviously a period of change for the practice of dentistry in Mexico. In the first year, seven students were enrolled all of them men three of whom finished the program and graduated in three years.

A year after the school opened a young lady from Tabasco, Clara Rosas enrolled in the course. She finished in three years having had very high marks, and was then invited by the faculty to join the teaching staff. In this way, Doctor Rosas was the first female to finish a career in that school and to begin practice. In 1911, she traveled to Philadelphia to visit the dental school. On her return, she presented a report and proposal to improve the program in the Mexican faculty In this document, Doctor Rosas pointed out with surprise that women were not allowed to enroll in the North American school.

Later she moved to Barcelona, Spain, where she practiced orthodontics for many years. She referred to this in the following:

“We have the only goal of dearly sharing the social and intellectual life of men, they being our fathers, brothers or sons. I shall also say that we females are all sentiment and when, for instance, we introduce ourselves to a masculine career, we adapt to the medium most adequate to our efforts. This is why I believe that in orthodontics, women find the best field of action.” 7

After the success of Doctor Rosas, several women felt confident and joined the dental school. The class of 1906 counted two ladies, Angelica Aviles and Maria Luisa Rojo. Doctor Rojo carried out relevant practice, became an academic and in 1925 published an article titled “The Rights and Obligations of Dental Surgeons” in the Mexican Dentistry Bulletin. Gradually, the Escuela Nacional ds Ensenanza Dental continued growing and moved into larger buildings so that it could house an increasing number of students. The female population grew to one third by the end of the thirties. By then there were several dental schools in the country: Guadalajara, M6rida, Puebla and San Luis Potosi. The slightly more conservative environment of the provinces made it a bigger challenge for women to break into the dental field. Throughout those years there are very few cases of teachers who refused to lecture to women. There was, however, one case, that of Doctor Fernando Quiroz, who taught anatomy for many years and constantly mentioned that women would be better if they stayed at home. One lady had the audacity to refute this once, risking her marks by saying “if all I aspired was to cook, I would have not enrolled in this school in the first place.”

In the forties and fifties, the number of successful female practitioners multiplied: Ernestina Martinez Espinosa, pathology teacher, author of multiple articles on pharmacology, and clinical case reporter at the Hospital General de Mexico where she is still assisting sixty year later; Isabel Carreon, orthodontist who practices in Veracruz, winner of the “Woman of the Year” award in 1968; Fanny Sanchez Mora, Maria Elena Castro Carruba and Maria Elena Orta, pioneers in the teaching of pedodontics, to mention a few. One who deserves special mention is Dr. Alicia Lao de la Vega, who, after graduating in 1946, carried on to pursue postgraduate orthodontics under the tuition of Dr. George Moore at the University of Michgan Dental School. She recalls there were very few women in the postgraduate area and they were all of other nationalities. She returned to Mexico to start a long and fruitful academic career, being the first woman invited to the seminars of the USC group. She still practices her profession with enthusiasm after 54 years.

In 1962 another outstanding case took place. Despite the growing number of women on the teaching staffs in the proliferating dental schools in Mexico, Dr. Estelle Villarreal became the first director of a dental faculty This happened at the Escuela Odontol6gica de Nuevo Leon. Soon this began to occur also in other parts of the country: Consuelo Laureano in Torreon, Margarita Lazo Carrillo at Universidad Intercontinental, Col. Maria Norma Esquivel Rodriguez at the Dental Faculty of the Military University, and Angelica Rosalba Martinez Rodriguez at the postgraduate Zaragoza Unit of the National University

In study groups, the involvement of women had to wait a little longer. Before the founding of the Mexican Dental Association (MDA), there is no record of women in associations devoted to further dental studies. Among the 111 signatures that appeared in the constitution act of the MDA, only four are female, and it would take until 1988 for Ana Tizcareno to become the first woman to become president of this association. Little by little other women would be elected to important posts in dental societies and study groups. Such are the cases of Doctors Yolanda Villarreal, Maria Cristina Eguiarte and Artemisa Hernandez at the Dental Association of Distrito Federal. Another fact worth mentioning is the founding of the first all female study groups, FEMO and Margarita Chorné.

During the 70s, the number of women enrolled in dental schools rose to 55%. And even though the numbers of females that graduate outnumbers that of males, some women still abandon their profession after marriage for motherhood, many with the idea of returning to practice, although that is rare.

We would like to end this article with a thought published by the dentist and historian Dr. Samuel Fastlicht in the MDA magazine in 1975:

“Amongst the estomatologists of Mexico today, there are magnificent female professionals specialized in oral surgery, competent orthodontists and periodontists. Women in clinics that make beautiful gold inlays. Endodontists and others specialised in children, that devote their love and patience to the little ones. One should also mention the legion of oral surgeons that lend their services anonymously in clinics, state hospitals, and all those ladies that belong in our team, and serve our entire country” 8


  1. Gonzalez Iglesias, J. and Cabeza Ferrer, L. Introduccion al mundo de la mujer en la odontologia. Primer encuentro de mujeres dentistas en Espana. Puerto de la Cruz. 1996. Espana. Ed Impresion Nueva Grafica. p. 65 (May).
  2. Sanfilippo, J. Datos odontologicos del Pueblo Maya Prehispanico. Bol Mex Hist y Filo Med, Mexico, 1985 8 (52): p. 54.
  3. Diaz de Kuri, M. and Chorné y Salazar, M. Premio 97-98 DEMAC. Mexico 1998. p. 26.
  4. Diaz de Ovando, C. Odontologia y publicidad en al prensa Mexicana del Siglo XIX. Mexico Direction General de Publicaciones UNAM. 1990, p. 14.
  5. Diaz de Ovando ibid p. 92.
  6. Diaz de Kuri ibid p. 35.
  7. Gonzalez Iglesias ibid p. 102.
  8. Fastlicht, S. Homenaje a Ia mujer mexicana en la odontologia. Revista ADM. Mexico, 1975,22 (6): p. 33-36 (Nov-Dec).

DR. ORTIZ is Professor, DR. DIAZ de KURI is Professor and Chief of the Dental History
in the Faculadad de Odontolozia, in Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

Article orginally published in the Journal of the History of Dentistry
Vol. 49, No. 1 /March 2001 copyright ©2001, all rights reserved