Robert Tanner Freeman

Robert Tanner Freeman

The first African-American dentist with a degree in dentistry from Harvard.

Robert Tanner Freeman was born in 1846 in Washington. His father is a carpenter and lives with his family in slavery. When Freeman is still a child, his father succeeds to buy their freedom. So, they move to Raleigh, North Carolina, as free people. That's why they take the surname "Freeman", as do countless other people after gaining their freedom from bondage.

When Freeman is a grown man, he manages to find a job with Dr. Henry Bliss Noble, a white dentist who works in Washington. Besides Noble, Freeman begins to learn more about teeth and the oral cavity. He works as an apprentice for a long time. Freeman is fascinated by this field of medicine and his interest is getting bigger every day! Noble sees how good Freeman is and he recognizes his talent. That's why he encourages him to apply to dental schools. He is sure that Freeman will succeed!

His first application, unfortunately, are not accepted. The reason; The color of his skin! At this time racial discrimination exists and black people don’t have the same and equal opportunities as other people. Noble, however, believes in him and encourages him to apply to School of Dental Medicine at Harvard University in Massachusetts. He knows that Harvard is school that has a new policy without prejudice. Racial discrimination in dental schools is slowly disappearing. Noble is sure that Freeman will have a great opportunity there! And indeed, he has it!

However, Freeman's first application to Harvard University is rejected. Then, Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep intervenes and requests for his second application to be accepted, after a petition to end the school’s historical exclusion of African Americans and other racial minorities! The dean's argument is strong and so Freeman has an interview with five other candidates. Everyone's applications are accepted. Freeman becomes one of "the first six" to study at Harvard Dental School He is only 21 years old.

During his studies, Freeman feels that he’s living a dream! He studies and learns new things, makes new friends and lives a good life at Harvard University. There, he meets his classmate George Franklin Grant. Together with Grant, became the first blacks to enter the 1867 Harvard Dental School inaugural class of sixteen. In 1869, he is the first to graduate from Dental School and has a degree in dentistry. The degree is referred to him as "Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry". Freeman is happy and satisfied! He is the first African-American dentist with a degree in America! Shortly after Freeman’s graduation, Grant followed him with his own degree.

Freeman returns to Washington, DC, besides his favorite mentor, Dr. Noble He manages to open his own dental clinic in the same building as Noble's office. It offers its services to everyone with a great sense of responsibility for the patient. Many young African Americans visit him in his office, not so much for his dental services, but mainly to talk to him and have his support and inspiration in order to follow his path. Freeman’s success has a huge impact on the black community, and he is an inspiration to more and more young African Americans who are interested in the medical profession.

Just four years after graduating from Dental School, Freeman contracts a water-borne disease. Robert Tanner Freeman dies on June 10, 1873, at the age of 27. Only years later, Freeman is honored by the National Dental Association, whose only predecessor was even titled the Robert T. Freeman Dental Society.


  • It's time to admire ourselves in the mirror! Together with your siblings or your parents, find a mirror at your house and observe your face. How does your face look like; Which part of our face help us to see, smell and eat? Let's explore our mouth a little bit more! Our mouth is very important, because we can eat, drink and of course talk to each other with it. Find here the photo with the human mount’s parts and read it very carefully. How many parts does it consist of? Which of these do you recognize? Where do we use each of them?
  • Teeth are the basic part of our oral cavity for our dentist. One of the most important tasks that he has to do is to clean our teeth and to fix any problems that our teeth may have. But how do we clean our teeth? Choose an egg carton and turn it upside down. This is a set of teeth! Paint it with watercolors, put little papers, strings and even chewing gums between the teeth! These are the "dirt" between our teeth! Now, just take toothbrushes and floss and start brushing! Don’t forget to dip your toothbrush in a bowl of water! How do we use the toothbrush? Where should we place it on the teeth? How do we brush them? If you want to find out the proper way of brushing them, just watch the video here or ask your dentist! Have a good brushing!

  • Did you know that the world’s first dental school was on the campus of the University of Maryland? That’s why we can find there the National Museum of Dentistry! The Museum has a collection with over 40,000 objects and an archive chronicling the development of professional dentistry that tell us the unique history of the dental profession. Highlights of the collection include George Washington’s dentures, Queen Victoria’s dental instruments, vintage toothpaste commercials and the world’s only tooth jukebox. How about taking a museum tour? Just click here and here and get ready to explore this amazing museum!