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Vida A. Latham, DDS, MD
by Hannelore T. Loevy & Aletha Kowitz - At the turn of the century, it was distinctly unusual for a woman to be active in both dentistry and medicine, but Chicago had such a woman. At the time, it was almost impossible for women to be admitted into a school of dentistry or medicine, yet Vida A. Latham managed to be accepted in both. Vida Annette Latham came from her native England to the United States in order to continue her studies of dentistry and medicine. She was born in Manchester, England on November 11, 1866, daughter of John Latham and Mary Ann L. Whalley...
Health Science Pioneer: Vida A. Latham, DDS, MD
At the turn of the century, it was distinctly unusual for a woman to be active in both dentistry and medicine, but Chicago had such a woman. At the time, it was almost impossible for women to be admitted into a school of dentistry or medicine, yet Vida A. Latham managed to be accepted in both.
Vida Annette Latham came from her native England to the United States in order to continue her studies of dentistry and medicine. She was born in Manchester, England on November 11, 1866, daughter of John Latham and Mary Ann L. Whalley. Little is known about her family. Her father, John Latham, seems to have been a physician, and Vida was the youngest of the 10 children in the family. She went to school in Norwich, graduated from Norwich High School, and attended Ellerslie College in Manchester. She must have arrived in the United States either late 1887 or beginning 1888. This is documented by her writing for in August 1887 she was still working in dentistry in London.(1) She came to study dentistry at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and graduated in 1892 as one of a class of 39. Three other women were in her class.(2) She possibly went to Ann Arbor because, at that time, a DDS degree from the University of Nhohigan was accepted in Great Britain. Only in 1892 did the General Medical Council of Great Britain revoke the regulation by which graduates in dentistry from Harvard or Michigan could have their degrees recognized in Great Britian.(3) Immediately upon arrival, she published a paper on comparative anatomy of teeth, which she also published in Gerrnan.(4) At the time, she was only 22 years old, indicating a tremendous desire and determination to do research and to write about it - a rare condition at the time, particularly in a woman.
Move to Chicago
Soon after graduation at Ann Arbor, Latham moved to Rogers Park, on the north side of Chicago, and remained at the same location for the close to 60 years she lived in Chicago. (Rogers Park was a separate village from Chicago until 1893, when it became part of expanding Chicago.) Her initial address on Morse Avenue was number 808. Later, Chicago city directories gave her address as 1644. The city of Chicago renumbered streets several times after the Chicago Fire of 1871 to eliminate at least some of the duplication of street names and confusion of numbering, and what appears to be two addresses is actually the same location. This is confirmed by the Bureau of Maps and Plats of the Department of Public Works of the City of Chicago. The house she lived in no longer exists. It was located close to Ashland Avenue - within a block or two of several forms of transportation, and about six blocks from Lake Nuchigan- Latham's obituary also notes that she was an active church member, but the multiplicity of churches in her immediate neighborhood precludes a decision as to which one she attended. On arriving in Chicago, she enrolled at Northwestern University Woman's Medical School, where she graduated with an MD in 1895, one of a class of 31.( 5, 6) . It is likely that she had always intended to pursue a double degree, since already as a student in Michigan, she expressed the view that unhappily medical men know too little of dentistry and the dentist too little of general medicine to be able to thoroughly examine [these] cases and to treat them as is necessary, seeing they depend for cure on the attention given by both professions.(7)
A few years later she said:
..every one is well aware that one department can not do without the other and the more we can learn of all these sciences the better professional men and women shall we become.8
Northwestern University Woman's Medical School was organized in 1870 as Woman's Hospital Medical College of Chicago and was renamed when it affiliated with Northwestern University in 1892. The faculty of the Woman's Medical School was composed in great part of physicians connected with the Hospital for Women and Children. That hospital was organized in 1865 by a group of professionals who included Mary H. Thompson who had arrived in Chicago on July 3, 1863 from New York. In reading Latham's publications, it is immediately apparent that she was already practicing dentistry before immigrating to the United States. In one of her early articles, she discusses the reflex pain following the breaking off of a root during the extraction of a molar and omitting removal of the root fragment while working with a Dr. Parkinson in London. Her paper discusses the side effects that can occur when she "had the misfortune to leave in the posterior buccal root ... a portion so small that at the time [she] was not aware of the accident."I...
Basic Science Interest
Vida Latham's interest in basic sciences must have started while still in England. On her arrival at Michigan, she presented papers to the Student Dental Society of the University of Michigan on the preparation of teeth for histological studies, in which she described the basics of histological technique in great detail. She discussed fixation, preparation of slides and staining, indicating that she was well acquainted with the process.(9) Latham published extensively in the dental and medical literature, and did a considerable amount of research in pathology and histology. Microscopy seems to have been her first love - one which continued for a great portion of her professional life. Many of her papers give detailed descriptions of microscopical techniques, preparation of tissues for study, and the results of the study. These papers frequently have excellent bibliographies. She noted:
In conducting bacteriological research, the importance of absolute cleanliness cannot be too strongly insisted upon. All slices, instruments, glass vessels and cover- glasses should be thoroughly cleansed before use. A wide-mouthed glass jar should always be close at hand, containing refuse alcohol for the reception of rejected slide preparations, or dirty cover-glasses. When required again for use, slides can be easily wiped clean with a soft rag. Cover-glasses require further treatment, for unless they are perfectly clean it is difficult to avoid the presence of air-bubbles when mounting specimens. They should be left in strong acid (hydrochloric, sulphuric or nitric) for some hours; then washed, first with water, then with alcohol and carefully wiped with a soft rag. (10)
Latham, The Author and Teacher
Since the Alumnae Book of the Woman's Medical College of 1896 lists her as Ex-demonstrator in Pathology at the University of Michigan, she was probably a demonstrator in pathology during her school days in Ann Arbor.(5) The same directory also lists her as a former professor of dental pathology, histology and bacteriology of the American College of Dental Surgery. The American College of Dental Surgery was a proprietary school that functioned in Chicago from 1885 to 1896, and later became a part of Northwestern University. Latham must have taught there while pursuing her medical school education, or soon thereafter. Vida Latham was a prolific and energetic writer, even while studying medicine and teaching pathology. According to her:
If you will encourage men to write, to give us literature, practical literary work, and publish these articles to the world, you will soon get bequests from these men and from you university men for having pointed out new lines of thought. (11)
She wrote more than 50 different articles on technique and dental pathology, and a large number of case reports on different entities, primarily infection and neoplasia of the oral cavity. She also reported on diseases other than those of the oral cavity, indicating that she practiced general medicine in addition to oral surgery. Several of her papers were reproduced in more than one journal, and some were translated and appeared in the German literature of the time. One of the characteristics of Latham's writings is her willingness to share her experience in histological techniques with other scientists. She wanted to teach and provide others with her remarkable knowledge of specimen preparation for microscopic study. In spite of this, possibly because dental schools did not have many openings for faculty - particularly for women faculty, or because of her strong views that dentists should also have an NM degree, she never had a large number of students to follow in her steps. She wrote about the advantages of women becoming dentists(12) and laboratory techniciansl3, but apparently only one student of hers, Dr. Anderson, worked closely with her.(14) Dr. M. Anderson was a physician in Moline, Illinois, who reported in 1902 at the AMA meeting in Saratoga Springs on the histological preparation of teeth for microscopic study. She apparently worked with Latham at the Woman's Medical College. The Alumnae Book of Northwestern Woman's Medical School of 18965 lists a series of publications and presentations Latham had done, which indicate her interests during the years while still a medical student. In 1896, the Illinois Medical Blue Book lists her as Assistant Secretary and Assistant Professor of Pathology, and Curator of the Pathology Laboratory of Northwestern Woman's Medical School. She is listed in the medical directories of the time as having office hours on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. She was also listed as Secretary of the Medical Staff, and Pathologist and Dental Surgeon at Mary Thompson Hospital. ( 15 )
Her many recorded comments at meetings of the Stomatological Section of the AMA indicate that she also practiced oral surgery and general dentistry. By the time Latham settled in Chicago, she seems to have become known well enough to have been accepted as a research colleague by physicians as famous as Eugene Talbot and George Weaver.16 At that time, George H. Weaver was the Professor of Pathology and Eugene S. Talbot was Professor of Dental Surgery at the Northwestern Woman's Medical School. She was a fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society of London, a member of several microscopical societies in the U.S. and abroad, and the editor of the Illinois State Microscopical Society Bulletin. For a while, she was the Director of the Laboratories of the American College of Dental Surgery, and taught in the dental department of Rush Medical College, where Eugene Talbot was a professor.
She received a merit award in microscopy in 1936, and an award as Medical Woman of the Year from the American Medical Women's Association in 1956.(17) After a very active professional life, she died on January 17, 1958 at the age of 91.(6)
Latham the Musician
Her obituary reports that Dr. Latham was an accomplished composer and played the organ and piano. (18) A search of musical literature has not uncovered any of her music which was published, but musicians of today agree that music by women composers had little chance for publication until very recently.
Medicine vs. Dentistry
Two themes which recur at short intervals concern Latham's opinions on the relation of dentistry to medicine and the education of both dentists and physicians. It was her considered opinion that dentistry is a specialty of medicine and basic education for dentists should be similar to that of the physicians. She rails about education being of mainly manual firm rather than "theoretical", and not based on subjects such as anatomy, histology and physiology.
She wrote extensively to encourage dental schools to teach histology and embryology, since it was her opinion that these subjects would be more useful than the physics that was required. She stated:
Dentistry is a specialty of medicine. A thorough medical education with the special dental subjects as operative and prosthetic branches is essential to the most successful practitioner of it. It should be placed on an equality with other specialties of medicine by special training. It is important that accessory scientific study and practice of dentistry be made instead of considering it merely manual art.19
This was a subject discussed at great length at the time of her arrival in the U.S., since different groups of educators insisted on the MD before admitting students to dental school, while others felt that the education of the two professions should be separate. Latham favored the position that medical and dental students should be educated together for the first years of the curriculum, or at the very least, by the same professors, using a similar approach to the same subject. In her discussions on differential diagnosis, she stated that unless the professional understands systemic disease and its inception s/he cannot accurately perform as a diagnostician:
We do not expect the dental student to be a dental surgeon unless he has the elementary training in pathology and its allied branches. Can a dentist recognize an hypertrophied condition in the mouth and their relations in the oral cavity? Take the surgical part of the work; I believe that he should have a basis for that. The best way, in my opinion, is to teach him dental histology and pathology, so that he thoroughly understands tooth-structure and the soft parts of the oral cavity.(20) For it is only by so doing that we will learn the etiology of many problems in stomatology. It is a pity that in the later years there has been a tendency to alienate the physiologist from the study of histology. The common object which the anatomists and the physiologist ought to have in view of the elucidation of general laws governing biologic phenomena. I have always urged that research on the oral organs be undertaken in the light of the newer methods in the staining, fixing reactions. Embryology is needed to ascertain these origins, and work on the glandular structure, and added to these the vasomotor control and the lymphatics. This gives a true foundation for the many pathologic effects in gingivitis, interstitial or so-called periodontitis and pus. Internal medicine then can aid us to treat these systemic conditions. Considerable work has been done on the nerve supply, but it is scattered throughout various papers.(21)
She also stated:
It would be a worthy object to found grants, scholarships and opportunities for original research work to post-graduates or advanced workers, instead of such memorials as oil-paintings, busts, etc. (22)
While studying for her two degrees, she presented a large number of papers to different scientific groups. Just before her June graduation in 1895, she traveled to Baltimore to present a paper on differential diagnosis in dentiStry23 to the Section on Dental and Oral Surgery of the American Medical Association during the forty-sixth Annual Meeting of the Association. It was a clinical paper on the diagnosis of different types of pulp and periodontal problems. In her paper, she compared the differences in medical and dental education, lamenting the lack of basic science education in the dental curriculum. This scanty program in basic sciences was a theme she would present over and over again in other papers. Many of her papers were presented to the Stomatological Section of the American Medical Association and included discussions on techniques of preparation of tissues for histological examination and histological examination of both healthy and pathological tissue.
In Minnesota in 1901, she presented a rather extensive review of the literature of the histology and embryology of the dental pulp.(24) The article she wrote, based on her presentation, included 22 different illustrations, something not very common at the time. In her study, she used several special stains to demonstrate the cell morphology of pulp fibroblasts as well as the presence of fibrils and to demonstrate the different pathological changes in the degenerating pulp. In an elegant manner, she presented much of what was known on the subject and illustrated it profusely. Like most of her papers, her discussion of pathological entities was usually completed with good photomicrographs of the lesion.
The review of the literature in her papers was very thorough, especially when compared with other publications of her time, and included extensive reviews of publications in foreign languages. It is a matter of record that she objected strongly to the ignorance of foreign literature in American scientific journals and vigorously expressed her views that progress in dentistry would be speeded considerably if American journals would acquaint themselves and their readers with research performed abroad.
At a time when travel in the U.S. was not easy, she traveled to many parts of the U.S. to present papers. She was very active in the Stomatological Section of the American Medical Association, traveled to many of its meetings, and commented frequently (often not very kindly) on the papers read. The Section on Stomatology was originally organized in 1881 as the Section on Dental and Oral Surgery, and renamed the Section on Stomatology in 1897. The first seven to become members of the stomatology group were all dentists with a medical degree: Goodwillie of New York, Allport, Talbot and Brophy from Chicago, Williams of Boston, Parmly of Connecticut and Hauxhust of Michigan. Each year, papers on histology and pathology of oral lesions were presented, and Latham and Talbot were the authors of several. During its active phase, many important papers were presented and "no paper on dental mechanics appeared.(25) Latham was the chairman of the section in 1905, and as chairman, she presented a paper reviewing the literature on this subject in Portland, Oregon.26 In 1906, she read a paper on ranula to the Massachusetts State Dental Association in Boston. As in many of her papers, the paper on ranulas had an extensive review of the literature, and discussion on their differential diagnosis.
The paper also included techniques of surgical treatment.(27) The published re- ports on these papers include the discussions that followed each presentation, and many of the comments were very complimentary. In fact, the positive comments she received contrast vividly with her often not so kind comments on papers of other investigators. By 1925, the section was eliminated because of the progress of dentistry as a separate specialty.(28) Latham continued to present some papers but not on the annual basis as before. She remained active for many years and presented papers on dentistry to women medical groups and continued her travels to different organizations, but in a less systematic manner. One of her last presentations was in Venice, Italy in 1930, when she talked on the relation of stomatology and medicine at the 19th Italian Stomatological Congress. At this time, she again stressed the need for medical education for people who would practice dentistry.(29)
Latham was considered by some the most prominent woman in dentistry in the late 19th century, and was one of a very small group of women included on the scientific program of the American Dental Association meeting of 1921 in Milwaukee. At that meeting, she presented a "clinic" on August 17, 1921 on "The use of the microscope in dentistry illustrating embryology, histology, pathology, bacteriology photomicrography, microchemistry, and metallurgy". At this ADA meeting in Milwaukee, a group of 12 women met and founded the American Association of Women Dentists. Latham was one of the 12 charter members. She remained as a member for many years, but she was not elected to office by the group; whether by her choice or the members' choice is not reported in extant records. In many of her papers, Latham is in opposition to the leading figures of the day in the field of dentistry. She scoffs at Greene Vardiman Black and Willoughby Miller; she is sometimes less than complimentary of other dentist researchers of her day. How much of this had a valid scientific basis cannot really be determined from her papers, but it would appear that there was at least a little professional jealousy together with the very real scientific differences which are encountered among well-trained, highly educated persons in any field of endeavor.
The number of women dental graduates was small in the last years of the 19th century and even in the first part of the 20th. The number of women medical graduates was somewhat larger, but not by much. Therefore, a woman who graduated from both programs was an exception indeed. Vida Annette Latham was such an exception. While she did not occupy a teaching position in any of the dental schools in Chicago, her major contributions to research, her many presentations to scientific societies and her influence on research create a position of distinction for her as one of the pioneers in Stomatology.
- Latham, VA. Reflex pain following the extraction of a tooth. Dent. Reg., 1888; 42:505
- Dent. Cosmos 1892; 34:858.
- Dent. Cosmos, 1893; 35:654.
- Latham, VA. The forms and origin of the teeth. Ohio J. Dent. Sci. 1888;8:257-62.
- Alumnae Book of the Woman's Medical College, 1896.
- Obituary: Vida A. Lathmn. 111. Dent. J., 1958; 27:97.
- Latham, VA. Stomatitis - especially with reference to dentition and dental surgery. Dent. Reg. 1891; 45:605- 16.
- Latham, VA. Diseases of the maxillary bones and their periosteum. Dent. Reg. 1894; 157-63, 223-30, 261-9.
- Latham, VA. Preparing sections of teeth for histology and bacteriology. Dent. Reg 1891, 45:276-281, 323- 34.
- Latham, VA. Short notes on the examination of teeth for bacteria etc. Dent. Reg., 1888; 42:477-82.
- Latham, VA. Discussion of the paper by W.A. Potter. Dent. Cosmos, 1906; 48:1250.
- Latham, VA. The profession of dentistry for women. Dental Era, 1905; 4:12-22.
- Latham, VA. Suggestions in special lines of research work for women. Medicine, 1906; 12:729- 49.
- Anderson, M. Some notes concerning preparation of teeth for microscopic study. Int. Dent. J. 1902; 23:588.
- Connorton's Cook County and State of Illinois Medical Directory, 1897.
- Talbot, ES. Discussion. Int. Dent. J. 1901; 22:639.
- J. Am. Med. Woman's Assoc. 1956; 11:435.
- Vida A. Latham, 91, Physician, Writer, Dies. Chicago Sun Times, 1958; Jan 18.
- Latham, VA. The necessity of a medical education for dentists. Dent. Dig., 1908; 14:425-6
- Latham, VA. Discussion on L. Gilmer's paper. Dent. Cosmos, 1905; 47:463-4.
- Latham, VA. Discussion on Mowry's paper. JADA, 1930; 17:1058-9.
- Latham, VA. The literature of the pulp. JAMA, 1901; 37:86-90.
- Latham, VA. The value of differential diagnosis in dentistry. JAMA, 1896; 26:722-5.
- Latham, VA. Resume of the histology of the dental pulp. JAMA, 1902; 39:63-73.
- Latham, VA. Eugene Solomon Talbot Sr. Dent. Items Inter. 1925;47:161-9.
- Latham, VA. Indications for scientific progress in stomatology. JAMA, 1905; 46:269-73.
- Latham, VA. Cysts of the oral cavity: ranula. Dent. Cosmos, 1906; 48:905-911.
- Fishbein, M. History of the American Medical Association. Philadelphia, Saunders, 1948, 1097.
Hannelore T. Loevy, DDS, PhD, is Professor of Clinical Pediatric Dentistry, University-of Illinois at Chicago.
Aletha Kowitz is the Director of Library Services at the American Dental Association.
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