The Academic Health Center History Project documents and preserves the institutional memory and historical events that chronicle the development of health sciences education and research at the University of Minnesota.

Would you bite on this for science?

Giovanni_Borelli _Instrument.jpgThe strength of one’s bite and the force used to chew food appear to have intrigued dental students for centuries. The earliest investigation of jaw strength on record dates to 1681 in Rome by Professor Giovanni Borelli of the Jesuit College (see picture at right). The value of the early studies on bite force and jaw muscle strength was mainly in satisfying curiosity, however later interest existed in the effect of functional demands on tissue health and development.

Gnathodynamometer.jpgIn 1936, the University of Minnesota’s School of Dentistry determined that the principle difficulty encountered by researchers studying the muscles of mastication was the lack of an instrument to accurately measure the pressure exerted by the jaws. Along with the University of Minnesota Scientific Instrument Shop, the School of Dentistry developed the “Gnathodynamometer of the School of Dentistry, University of Minnesota”. Would you bite on this for science?

For more information on this instrument or on the School of Dentistry’s history, please visit the University Archives.

No cavities

Nature abhors a vacuum. Apparently history does too.

Although the history of the health sciences at the University of Minnesota is ours to keep and preserve, we are not the only place to find our history. Our history is part of other histories such as Minnesota history and the history of science and medicine, and thus, is found in many different locations.

img0164.jpgA recent entry to Ben Welter’s regular feature “Yesterday’s News” on the Star Tribune web site reinforces the idea that our history is everywhere. The column highlighted an article from October 10, 1945 interviewing the then new dean of the School of Dentistry, William Crawford. The article demonstrates the role of the dental school in a modern age and the research behind the introduction of fluorine as a tool in dental health.

Welter accompanies the reprinted story with several photographs from the Minnesota Historical Society’s collections of the dental facilities. It is easy to understand the attention the University’s School of Dentistry received across the state and by the public in general.

Such recognition was not a first for the School of Dentistry. In 1923, the then College of Dentistry at the University received a straight A rating by the Dental Education Council of America. The Council noted “Certain institutions stand forth in the educational world because of their power to inspire students with the desire for knowledge and with the love of hard work… The University of Minnesota College of Dentistry is such an institution.” This is the dental equivalent to having no cavities.

The August 15, 1923 issue of Minnesota Chats, a publication by the University, recites more of the Council’s praise and discusses the role of the College of Dentistry in relation to the state. Read the full pamphlet below.


Gross anatomy

From time to time, when sorting though boxes and folders of personal papers and office records, certain things will jump out at you as being out of place or not part of the original intention of the creator. Often times this addition to a collection is an unwanted biological guest like bugs or spiders (sometimes living but mostly dead), mold or mildew (usually dormant but sometimes active), and once I even saw the skeletal remains of a mouse (definitely an unintentional addition).

However, working with collections that focus on the health sciences, stumbling across a biological specimen is usually no accident at all. I’ve found random, unlabeled paraffin wax pathology samples as well as a wax cast of the inner ear (harvested post-mortem).

Today was a new anatomical sample in the archives. Inside this miniature cigar box were nearly two dozen envelopes containing extracted adult human teeth from the 1950s.


Most had their full roots and represented all types of molars, bicuspids, and incisors.


It was as if some contemptuous tooth fairy had stashed them away.


In September 30, 1846 William Morton used ether to assist extracting a tooth from a patient in his dental office. Two weeks later he repeated the technique in front of an audience of his peers at Massachusetts General Hospital. The success of the ether demonstration ushered in a new era in surgical anesthesia.

Over forty years later, the use of ether and nitrous oxide were prevalent in surgical operations but still poorly adopted by many for dental procedures. The 1889-1890 Catalogue for the newly created College of Dentistry listed instruction in the administration of ether and nitrous oxide as a part of the curriculum. According to Mellor Holland’s A History of the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry: 1888-1988, cocaine was the primary local anesthetic available at the time. The clinical instruction and opportunity to administer the gases to patients at the infirmary offered dental students an opportunity to learn practical skills that exceeded common practice.

Dr. Erwin Schaffer

img0059.jpgDr. Erwin Schaffer, dean of the School for Dentistry from 1964 to 1977, passed away on December 25, 2007. Dean Schaffer’s tenure at the School of Dentistry served as the basis for the growth of the School and its many programs and research initiatives including geriatric dentistry and cleft palate prevention.

Appointed in 1964 by then President O. Meredith Wilson, Dean Schaffer was a part of the reformation of the health sciences and long range planning for health education at the University. After chairing the Division of Periodontology for seven years, his leadership helped to transform the free-standing School of Dentistry into one of the six schools and colleges of the AHC focused on research and clinical education. He also helped oversee the physical expansion of the School of Dentistry through planning and fundraising efforts for the construction of Unit A Health Science Tower (later renamed Moos Tower).

A memo written shortly after Dr. Schaffer’s appointment in October 1964 captures the enthusiasm many felt for the new dean’s plans. The memo highlights Dean Schaffer’s vision of preventive dentistry as the next building block to the School’s already established restorative program. Read the full memo below.


Health sciences unit A

We will become the architects of health care delivery programs that bring to every citizen of the state the finest health care that society has seen.

img0056.jpgWith these words, Malcolm Moos, the tenth president of the University of Minnesota, celebrated the groundbreaking for Health Sciences Unit A in 1971. Unit A was the first in a series of interconnected facilities designed to integrate interprofessional education and optimize health care delivery. Based on commissioned studies and committee recommendations during the 1960s, health science education was brought together under the newly created administrative body of the Academic Health Center as well as physically in a complex of buildings, tunnels, and skyways.

Also during the groundbreaking ceremony, the Board of Regents charged the newly formed health sciences administration and faculty to remember

It is the Health Sciences facilities which we are here talking about today [that] will be implemented physically by a moral and intellectual commitment to see that all people of our state, those in the inner city and those in the out edges of the state, without regard to the particular circumstance in which they find themselves economically, will have available to them the degree and the facilities of health care which are adequate and appropriate to the dignity which each man has as a human being.

The building was completed in 1973 for a total cost of $45 million and was home to the School of Dentistry, teaching laboratories for basic sciences, and departments from the School of Public Health and the Medical School upon its opening.

In 1983 the University officially changed the name of Health Sciences Unit A to the Malcolm Moos Health Sciences Tower to commemorate President Moos’ commitment to the expansion of the health sciences on campus.

Read the full remarks made at the groundbreaking ceremony on April 1, 1971.


Drinking, smoking & graduating

img0034.jpgWhat does your yearbook say about you? A former University of Minnesota yearbook The Gopher approached the sentimentality surrounding graduation and the passing on of traditions in a less than serious manner.

For example, below are a few selections describing students in the School of Dentistry from 1908.

Name: Colie
Occupation: Answering roll call
Drink: Hops

Name: Mitt
Occupation: Collecting matches
Drink: Hoods Sarsaparilla

Name: Sandy
Occupation: Forgetting
Drink: Hot Scotch

The College of Pharmacy students graduating that same year did not fare much better.

Dretchko, A. L. So little is known concerning him that perhaps the less said about him the better.

Earl, Fred, W. Fred cares about as much for Botany as bacteria for a dead clam.

Erchenbrack, Earl S. His September modesty is now a thing of the past. Why, he even learned how to smoke!

Similar remarks (and more) are available on today’s students’ Facebook or MySpace pages. The difference is today’s employers are more likely to stumble across the comments via Google.

Robert J. Gorlin papers

img0018.jpg Last week a small but valuable collection came into the project; the papers of the late Dr. Robert J. Gorlin. Dr. Gorlin, who passed away last summer at the age of 83, was a larger than life presence at the University of Minnesota for over fifty years. Dr. Gorlin was a Regents’ Professor in the School of Dentistry but also held numerous joint appointments in the Medical School. An international expert in oral and maxillofacial pathology, Dr. Gorlin identified more than 100 syndromes related to genetic causes and published over 600 articles and text books including Syndromes of the Head and Neck, the authoritative work in the field.

The collection is a half linear foot and consists primarily of correspondence, research notes, drafts of publications, and photographs. There are also several recordings of recent lectures Dr. Gorlin gave.

The materials come from the Gorlin family. Unfortunately, most of Dr. Gorlin’s office files were lost after his passing due to the space constraints faced by the department.