Basil Manly Wilkerson: Dental Inventor Extraordinaire
By John M. Hyson, Jr., D.D.S. & M.S. Audrey B. Davis, Ph.D.
Although Dr. Basil Manly Wilkerson is generally recognized
as the inventor of the Wilkerson dental chair, little has been published
concerning his earlier role as a Confederate cavalryman, dental educator,
and journal editor.
Basil Manly Wilkerson (Fig. 1), an 1868 graduate of the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, was a prominent dental inventor of the 19th century. Among his inventions was the first hydraulic dental chair and one of the first air-driven turbine handpieces.
The Confederate Cavalryman: 1863-65
Basil Manly Wilkerson, D.D.S., M.D. (1842-1910) was born in Foster's Settlement, Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, on 28 March 1842. During the Civil War, he served from 1863-65 as a third sergeant in Company "K," 8th Regiment (Hatch's), Alabama Cavalry. The regiment was assigned to C.G. Armistead's Brigide, Department of Alabama, Mississippi, and East Louisiana. It saw action at Lafayette, Georgia, where it suffered 105 casualties. By September 1864, its strength was down to 241 men. His unit, commanded by Captain Charles E. Owen, surrendered on 4 May 1865 at Citronelle, Alabama, to Major General Edward R.S. Canby's troops at Gainesville, Alabama. Wilkerson was paroled on 14 May 1865. 11,12,4
The Dentist: 1868
After the war, Wilkerson attended the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery and graduated in 1868. In 1873, he graduated from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Baltimore, with an M.D. degree. Wilkerson served on the faculties of the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery from 1872-79, and the Dental Department, University of Maryland, from 1883-88. Also, he was the proprietor and co-editor of the journal, Independent Practitioner, from 1879-82. Among his published articles in the Practitioner was "Teeth, Pregnancy and Disease" (1880).
The Wilkerson Chair: 1877
The Wilkerson dental chair (Fig. 2), patented in 1877, was the first hydraulic dental chair. It sold for $175. As late as 1881, some dentists were still unaware of the chair's merits for in January, Dr. W.H. Hertz of Hazeltown, Pennsylvania, inquired of Dr. Ferdinand J.S. Gorgas, the dean of the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery:
"I was referred to you in reference to inquiries concerning the Wilkerson chair. Has the headrest the same range for round shouldered, stout and short necked patients as White's Pedal lever? Does the elevating part wear much or get out of order or does the oil swell when you let the chair down? Do you like the back as well as White's? Please give me your opinion as to the points of merit, as I know little about the chair? 7,6,
In the 1882 edition of Codman & Shurtleff's catalogue, the chair is referred to as "showing great originality;" "all cranks are dispensed with and levers substituted for them." The chair was raised by a foot lever ("requires verv little effort, and occupies but eight seconds"), and lowered by another lever ("sinks rapidly and noiselessly").
Other levers allowed the chair to rotate ("through the whole circle") and rock back and forth. In addition, minor movements were possible; such as the raising, or lowering, of the back and headrest, slight rocking of the seat ("to prevent the patient from sliding forward"), footstool length and height adjustment, and the small of the back support (which converted into "a capital child's seat"). The upholstery could be ordered in either green or garnet plush fabric or in leather. The price was $180. 1
By 1886, the chair was modified and called the "Latest Improved Wilkerson" (Fig. 3). It was made in three different heights known as "Low-base," "Medium-base," and "High-base," which ranged from 20-28 inches, 23-34 inches, and 26-40 inches from lowest to highest position, respectively. The four-prong legs were retained. Also, a new model was now made called the "High-Low Wilkerson," (Fig. 4) which featured a cast iron round base, 24 inches in diameter instead of legs.
This chair also had a longer cylinder for its piston which extended below
the floor on which the chair stood; therefore, a hole had to be cut in
the floor to accommodate it. The chair came in four sizes, havina vertical
range of t, 15, 17, 19, and 21 inches, respectively, and required a space
below the floor level of 7, 9, 11, and 13 inches. The sizes were known
as the 7,9, 11, and 13 inch "High-Low" Wilkerson chairs. It
could be ordered in maroon, crimson, or green plush.'
The Air Turbine Drill: 1877
In 1877, Dr. Wilkerson patented his "improvement in dental engines" (U.S. patent no. 189,409, 10 April 1877). His turbine drill (Fig. 7) was "automatically driven by water, steam, compressed air, or other motive power." It added a "fine stream of water to wet or cool the operative part of the tool when it becomes heated." The drill shaft was operated by a "waterwheel" propellant. The "incoming stream" operated "upon the paddles." It could also be attached to a "dental plugger." Although "compressed air or steam" could be used "to drive the wheel and engine," water was preferred. It would be another seventy-five years before his invention became the standard. 9,13
Dr. Wilkerson became internationally known as the inventor of his dental chair. His other dental inventions beside his turbine drill included a reservoir spittoon and bracket attachment for a dental chair, a combined instrument case and dental engine, and an anesthetic inhaler. He also invented a scrotal "Suspensory" (1880).
Dr. Wilkerson died of a coronary at Harrisonburg, Virginia, on 13 June
1910. Until the time of his death, Wilkerson continually tried to improve
and promote his chair as indicated by correspondence between Wilkerson
and the S.S. White Company (in the collections of the Hagley Museum and
Library at Wilmington, Delaware) 6,11,10,15
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DR. HYSON is Director of Curatorial Services, Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry,
Baltimore, MD; Assistant Professor, Oral Health Care Delivery, Baltimore College of Dental Surgery,
Dental School, University of Marylind, 31 South Greene Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-1504
DR. DAVIS is former Curator of Medical Sciences, The National
Museum of American History, Snmithsonian Institution
Article orginally published in the Journal of the History of Dentistry
Vol. 47, No. 2/July 1999 pp 61-64 copyright ©1999, all rights reserved