Josiah Flagg, Surgeon Dentist
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In this broadside advertisement published in Boston in 1796, Josiah Flagg, Jr., a very early--if not the first--native-born American dentist, "informs the public, that he practices in all the branches, with improvements" of dentistry and transplants "both live and dead Teeth with greater conveniency, and gives less pain than heretofore practiced in Europe or America." Flagg goes on to give a long list of dental and surgical procedures that, in spite of his claims, certainly sound painful. On the verso of the advertisement, Flagg gives instructions for the use of his "dentifices, or tinctures" for tooth care, adding in manuscript on this copy the admonition to "Fear not the stiffness of the [tooth] brush," and if the tincture was too potent for the gums, to "add to it Port Wine to your likeing...."
A Notable American Dentist
Josiah Flagg, Jr., was born in Boston in 1763, one of the nine children of Josiah and Elizabeth (Hawkes) Flagg. The elder Flagg was a jeweler, patriot, Revolutionary War soldier, and a pioneer musician and music publisher, who, working with Paul Revere, published A Collection of the Best Psalm Tunes in 1764. Although Revere himself advertised his services as a dentist in the 1760s, we do not know if he influenced the career of the younger Flagg. We know relatively little about Josiah Flagg, Jr.'s, early life, or where and how he learned to be a dentist. In 1782, he is mentioned in records as assisting his father in the department of the commissary of military stores in Rhode Island, and from newspaper advertisements we know that after the Revolution he began to practice dentistry. His first newspaper advertisement after his return to Boston dates from 1790, the same year he married Hannah Collins.
About the time that he began practicing dentistry in Boston, Josiah Flagg, Jr., built what is considered to be the first dental chair in the United States. He took an ordinary Windsor chair and added an adjustable headrest and an extension to the armrest with a drawer beneath for dental instruments. His chair, used by three generations of dentists in the Flagg family, is now in the Edward and Trudy Weaver Historical Dental Museum at the Kornberg School of Dentistry of Temple University. Not all of Flagg’s innovations were equally beneficial. His enthusiasm for transplanting "live teeth," a practice that was dangerous for both patient and donor, may have traced back to Dr. John Hunter, an English surgeon who wrote widely influential works on dentistry, including A Practical Treatise on Dentistry (1778). Hunter was a strong advocate of transplantation, a practice that continued on into the nineteenth century.
Josiah Flagg, Jr. appears to have left Boston in the early 1790s, but returned to his practice there as a "Surgeon Dentist" in 1795, issuing this broadside advertisement in 1796. About this time, Flagg got into financial difficulties that caused a minor public scandal. After the death of his father in 1794, a public concert was held in Boston to benefit his widowed mother. The Columbian Centinel for 31 January 1795 contained an advertisement for the concert and directly below it a poem that referred to Josiah Flagg's "vile miscreant Son--J. F." (Josiah Flagg, Jr.). Unfortunately, the poet, "C. P." was content to:
...forbear and leave the task to those,
Whose abler pens can best His crimes expose....
Shew how to every sense of feeling lost
He could the misery of his Parents boast!
He does not, however, give us any further details of Josiah Flagg, Jr.'s, alleged vile deeds.
In 1797, after the death of his wife Hannah, Josiah Flagg married Elizabeth Brewster of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He later moved to Burlington, Massachusetts, before returning to Boston yet again by 1802-1803. While most of what we know of Flagg's career is from newspaper and broadside advertisements of his dental practice, his son, John Foster Brewster Flagg recollected that his father had been in England during the War of 1812, and after being shipwrecked on the voyage home, the elder Flagg traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, where he died of yellow fever in 1816.
The Flagg Family, a Dental Dynasty
Whatever his own family problems, Josiah Flagg, Jr., was the progenitor of a remarkable line of famous dentists: his sons, Josiah Foster Flagg (1788-1853) and John Foster Brewster Flagg (1804-1872); and John Foster Brewster's son, Josiah Foster Flagg ("Foster Flagg," 1828-1903). Josiah Foster Flagg studied medicine with Dr. John Collins Warren in Boston and worked as a physician and medical illustrator before devoting his career primarily to dentistry. After the death of his father, he became his stepbrother's guardian. They both played active roles in the controversy over the introduction of ether anesthesia in Boston in the 1840s. After they moved to Philadelphia, John Foster Brewster Flagg and his son, Foster Flagg, both became professors when new professional dental schools began to appear in the mid-nineteenth century. Mary Jane Small deserves much credit for sorting out the complicated and overlapping histories of the Flagg family dentists (four members of the family, three of whom were named Josiah) and debunking myths that have grown up around the career of Josiah Flagg, Jr., in her study, Four Dentists & A Musician (2002).
Broadsides are single sheets of paper printed on one side that were meant to be posted or read aloud as official notices, public announcements, news, or, as in this case, advertisements. The Historical Society holds nearly 10,000 broadsides--a large and important collection of items that, by their very nature, were intended to be ephemeral. The advertisement displayed here also has printing on the verso (the back of sheet), but Josiah Flagg's instructions for his tooth care products (dated 1800 in manuscript) are separate from the advertisement of his dental services, and possibly even printed at a later date on existing copies of the 1796 advertisement. Descriptions of the Society’s entire collection of broadsides are available through our online library catalog, ABIGAIL.
For Further Reading
Flagg, Josiah F. The Family Dentist: Containing a Brief Description of the Structure, Formation, Diseases, and Treatment of the Human Teeth. Boston: J.W. Ingraham, 1822.
Music, David W. "Josiah Flagg," American Music, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Summer, 1989), 140-158.
Ring, Malvin E. Dentistry: An Illustrated History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985.
Small, Mary Jane. Four Dentists and a Musician. New Harbor, Me.: MJ Small Books, 2002.