Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Spring/105/Section 87/Dr. H.S. Willey

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Dr. H.S. Willey was a white, male dentist in Elizabeth City, North Carolina during the 20th century3. He graduated from Dental School at the University of Maryland in 1903 and began to practice in Elizabeth City soon after3. He and his wife had no kids of their own, but they enjoyed each other's company and simple things in life as financial hardships forced them to be frugal3. Dr. Willey was interviewed for the Federal Writers Project in 19393.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life

Very little is known about the early life of H.S. Willey except that he was born in the late 1800s.

Professional Life

Dr. Willey went to dental school at the University of Maryland and was in the graduating class of 1903. After graduating, Dr. Willey came back to Elizabeth City, N.C., and opened his first dentistry practice3. This building was located off the main roads and he chose it for affordability because it had a cheaper rent than other options. However, he quickly had to close this practice and open a new one on the main road because he was losing patients to competitors in that area. Over his time as a dentist, advancements in the career field and technology resulted in the expectations of a dentist changing quite a bit. At the beginning of his career, he was referred to as a “tooth dentist” and spent most of his time pulling teeth. However, as developments in the field were made, dentists became more important for the overall health of people and their services expanded significantly. He then began to serve people on a regular basis as they came in for yearly checkups. Dr. Willey also treated specific issues such as swollen gums or pain in the mouth as patients were referred to him by general doctors when their conditions became severe3. This would happen frequently as patients who could not afford dental care would avoid coming in for treatment until their condition became extreme. As the use of anesthesia increased in the dental industry, Dr. Willey stopped performing extractions because he couldn't bear to see his patients in that much pain3. Although this caused him financial loss over time, he felt that this sacrifice was worth it to not have to do that procedure and avoid inflicting that much pain upon his patients3. The country itself evolved during his time as a dentist as industrialization was taking place and a shift was made from rural country to city. Dr. Willey experienced this and he learned that many stereotypes, such as how rural folk are less likely to pay him on time or at all than city folk, are untrue since he served people from both populations3.

Personal Life

Dr. H.S. Willey was an extremely mild-mannered and kind man, even referred to as “Dr. Mildman” sometimes. Aside from his dental business, he also owned multiple properties in order to generate more income. He and his wife have the house they reside in, two farms, and about 1300 acres of woodland3. Dr. Willey’s hope is that these properties will take care of him and his wife in their old age after his retirement. He even hoped to open a vineyard on one of the properties3. Reflecting the economic state of the country at the time, even with a stable job Dr. Willey wanted to be prepared for any hardships that could have been thrown his family’s way. At the time of his Federal Writers Project Interview in 1939, he and his wife had been married for 31 years. Both frugal and simple people, neither one enjoyed spending excess money on anything. In their free time, the pair liked to go on long drives and listen to the radio, where they could hear stations from all over the world and listen to sermons3.

Social Issues and Historical Context[edit | edit source]

Economic State of America in the Early 1900s

In the early 1990s, America was growing rapidly as it began to establish itself as a world power1. Industrialization raged throughout the country resulting in a nationwide shift from rural areas to developing cities. Many assume that city dwellers were much wealthy than those residing in the country. However, financial struggles were far from rare, people of every profession experienced periods of unsteady incomes due to all the change. “In 1900, the average family had an annual income of $3,000 (in today’s dollars),”2. Reflecting this income, a majority of families in the country had no indoor plumbing, phone, or car and over half of American children lived beneath the poverty line2.

Evolution of Dentistry

In the 21st century, going to the dentist is an annual event for most Americans, however, in the grand scheme of history, the field of dentistry itself is rather new. States only began requiring dental certifications to practice in 1891, with a two-year program being offered to reach these standards4. It wasn't until 1899 that all states in the U.S. adopted official Dental licensure requirements in order for a dentist to practice legally. The adoption of these requirements resulted in accredited dental schools popping up across the country, with 28 opened in the state of Illinois alone by 19024. In the year 1900, the United States was home to 57 dental schools4. This rapid growth and increased interest for licensed dental professionals resulted in an increased interest in the profession, resulting in what we know to be the dentistry field today.

Economic Disparities influence on Oral Hygiene

Dental care is often not covered by public health insurance, therefore most of the time treatments are paid for directly from the patient’s pockets. High costs deter people from getting the dental care they may need allowing their issues to go untreated. Due to these reasons, there have been direct connections made between income and overall dental hygiene. In regions with low income, there is an obvious gap in oral hygiene5. This was proven in a recent Japanese study where the introduction of universal public healthcare led to an immediate increase in overall oral hygiene in regions where it was lacking before5.

References[edit | edit source]

1 America at the Turn of the Century: A Look at the Historical Context  : Articles and Essays  : The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906  : Digital Collections  : Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/early-films-of-new-york-1898-to-1906/articles-and-essays/america-at-the-turn-of-the-century-a-look-at-the-historical-context/ (accessed Mar 20, 2021).

2 Digital History https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3175 (accessed Mar 20, 2021).

3 Folder 724: Saunders, W. O. (interviewer): Women can take more punishment than men. (n.d.). https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/03709/id/1210/rec/1 (accessed Mar 20, 2021).

4 MJ, F. Dental Education at the Crossroads: Challenges and Change. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25121229/ (accessed Mar 20, 2021).

5 Murakami, K.; Hashimoto, H. Wealth-related versus income-related inequalities in dental care use under universal public coverage: a panel data analysis of the Japanese Study of Aging and Retirement. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4709892/ (accessed Mar 20, 2021).