First woman dentist

Advertisement from the Aug. 31, 1890, Illinois State Register (courtesy State Journal-Register)

Jennie F. Spurrier (1847-1912) was a dentist in Springfield beginning in 1877, making her the city’s first woman dentist and one of the earliest female dentists in the U.S. From what we know of her, she also seems to have been independent, outspoken and fearless.

When she first set up shop on the south side of the courthouse square (today’s Old Capitol Plaza), the Illinois State Register said in 1890:

She met with a storm of opposition from the profession, who looked upon the advent of a lady dentist as threatening ruin to the whole fraternity. She was attacked through the press, and every endeavor made to break her down, but she pursued the even tenor of her way, and to-day her practice surpasses that of any dentist in the city.

(The same article claimed Spurrier might be “the first lady dentist in this or any other country.” However, Wikipedia reports that Emmeline Roberts Jones, who practiced in Connecticut and Rhode Island, began working in her husband’s dental practice in 1855.)

According to the Register article, Spurrier studied under early Springfield dentist Dr. C.G. French for four years before hanging her own shingle. The story, written as more of an advertisement than a news item, concluded:

We can say truthfully of our lady dentist that in her line she excels. Her patrons are numbered among our best people, while her large and increasing patronage is evidence that she has given satisfaction.

Little is known about Spurrier’s early life, and what information there is is confusing. She apparently was born in the mid-1840s in Valparaiso, Ind. – some sources list her birth year as 1847, others say 1845, but she is listed (under the first name Jane) as 17 years old in the 1860 U.S. Census; that suggests she was born in 1842 or 1843. (Her parents were Minerva and William Moorhead; her father was a physician, which may have influenced his daughter’s decision to become a dentist.) At any rate, she would have been a young woman when she married Joseph Spurrier and, in 1860, bore a son, Frank Lincoln Spurrier.

When she lived in Springfield, Jennie Spurrier was listed in census records as a widow, but an Ancestry.com family tree for Frank Spurrier says his father didn’t die until 1928.

In a passport application from 1889, before photos were part of the process, Spurrier reported she had brown eyes, “black to gray” hair, a small mouth and nose, and a “large” face.

Whatever her early background, by the time she moved to Jacksonville and then Springfield in the 1870s, Spurrier seems to have been a force of nature – and she made sure to notify the local newspapers about her many activities.

Before and during the early years of her dental practice, Spurrier was a seamstress, specializing in hoop skirts and bustles. In 1885, she patented an improved mosquito net, one that attached to bedposts with clamps.

She was an active member of the Universalist church, regularly holding church “sociables” at her dental office, and a Republican – the window decorations she created when the local GOP held a big rally to support presidential candidate James G. Blaine in 1884 drew special notice from the Illlinois State Register.

Spurrier traveled to Europe in 1889 (the journey for which she filled out the passport application) to attend a dentists’ convention in Paris; she and her companion, a woman from Cantrall, then went on to visit Rome and climb Mt. Vesuvius.

Once she overcame the male objections to her being a dentist, Spurrier took advantage of innovations in the field to promote her practice. On May 10, 1883, she advertised:

From now until the first day of June, I will extract all teeth free of charge, using Von Bonhurst’s Local Anesthetic; also electricity to render the operation painless. Having secured the assistance of a first-class operator, I am prepared to do all work in Dentistry to the satisfaction of everybody.

Spurrier got the most public attention, however, when she initiated the conviction of a supposed clairvoyant who was fleecing area residents in 1897. Convinced the man, who went by the alias of Luke Leslie, was a fraud, Spurrier pretended to believe in his visions; as part of her trap, she gave Leslie $60 worth of gold coins, which he said he would return later. When Leslie absconded with Spurrier’s money and that of other victims, she sought his arrest. Spurrier then testified during Leslie’s trial a few months later. (See Fortune-teller scandal, 1897, for the full story.)

Spurrier last appears in the Springfield city directory in 1906. She actually seems to have moved to San Francisco in the fall of 1905; she had an apartment there when the city was devastated by the April 18, 1906 earthquake. Luckily, Spurrier had traveled to Southern California a few days before the disaster, because her San Francisco apartment was demolished in the aftermath of the quake.

The Illinois State Register published a letter Spurrier wrote about the scene, and about her distaste for California in general, ten days after the earthquake.

My room was two blocks from the great Call and Examiner buildings. The large apartment house is burned. It was on Market street. The sights are pitiful and put me in mind of Sodom and Gomorra – the people fleeing for their lives. It is going to be a hard time here, so many poor people can’t rebuild; will scatter to surrounding towns, which are already congested with the poor, and men hunting work, the railroad holding out inducements and the real estate men such terrible misrepresentations. …

So many sick people come to the coast and are willing to work for almost nothing to help meet their expenses. I saw one fine looking man selling soapsuds colored with analine, to make soap bubbles; women are working for hardly enough to keep them alive. … Everybody is trying to get the best of each other. They go on the principle, as David Harum says, of ‘you do the other fellow before he does you.’ …

I consider such conditions terrible, and would that I could have any influence to keep people at home, for this is a land of misrepresentations. You get here cheap enough, but like the spider and the fly, you cannot get back cheap. As I am one of the frightened ones – for I don’t like the sickening sensation of an earthquake physically, nor the sensation mentally – I have concluded to (go?) with the rest. So please discontinue my Register until I find another resting place, out of the land of shocks.

Respectfully,

Dr. Jennie F. Spurrier

 Spurrier died March 4, 1912, in Springfield, Mo.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

 

 

 

 

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