Get in touch with your past

March 21, 2012
Renee Knight
Issue 5

If you walk into Dr. Sam Wexler’s basement in Richmond, Ill., you’ll likely feel like you’ve taken a step back in time.

If you walk into Dr. Sam Wexler’s basement in Richmond, Ill., you’ll likely feel like you’ve taken a step back in time.

He has modeled his basement after an early dental depot using the old dental chairs and cabinetry he’s acquired over the years. Eight or 9 antique dental chairs sit down the middle of the room, each one representing a different point in dental history and illustrating the dental chair’s evolution through time. In all, he has 20 chairs and 20 cabinets in what he said is one of the largest private dental antique collections in the U.S.

He’s most fascinated with the mechanics behind early dental chairs and the beautifully crafted cabinetry he’s come across, but that’s not where his interest in dental antiques ends. Early dental lights, x-rays, ivory handled instruments, tooth keys and early electric engines are among the items that make up his extensive collection. Most of his pieces date from between 1870, when dental equipment was first manufactured, to 1920.

“I’ve collected things and held onto them for 30 or 40 years, when most people throw everything out,” Dr. Wexler said. “Above all, dentistry has a real interesting history. It’s just amazing how things developed and changed.”

How it all started

In the early 1970s, Dr. Wexler was a dental equipment and supplies buyer. One day, he came across an old dental light while cleaning out an office with used equipment on the south side of Chicago. The light dated back to about 1910, he said, and was something he just couldn’t leave behind. The four-globed wall type lamp, which was used until the 1930s, featured globes cut like glass that dispersed light throughout the room.

From that experience, he got the bug.

“I took it home and hung it in our family room,” Dr. Wexler said. “That’s how my dental collecting career started.”

The search begins

Back then, finding these pieces of dental history took some work. Dr. Wexler turned to old dental catalogues to help determine which items he was most interested in collecting. Focusing on mostly chairs and cabinets, Dr. Wexler created a wish list that he sent to Midwestern dentists who graduated from dental school before 1920. He found these dentists through the ADA’s directory, knowing they’d be his best chance at locating the items on his list.

His first lead came from a Dr. Walter Bayne in Henry, Ill. He made the long trip from Chicago to Henry on a cold, icy day in March to look at an old foot engine and a beautiful cabinet the clinician’s sister wasn’t ready to sell.

After that first trip, Dr. Wexler received a lot of leads that took him across the Midwest. He remembers a trip to Bainbridge, Ohio, which is where the Harris brothers started the first dental school in 1825. The museum there acquired items from SS White, one of the oldest dental companies in the U.S. Many of those items were ruined in a flood, what Dr. Wexler describes as “a big loss for U.S. dental history in The States.”

Through the years, Dr. Wexler did quite a bit of traveling to find items for his collection. Family vacations often were extended by a side trip to pick up a dental chair. Dr. Wexler often planned it that way, making his family a huge part of this hobby he enjoyed so much. His son, who grew up sitting in dental chairs from a young age, is now a dentist. His wife, Charlene, has been a huge support over the years and has even written about the family trips made in search of pieces of dental history.

The people he’s met along the way

Half the fun of collecting is the people you meet, Dr. Wexler said. He’s met some famous, influential dentists over the years. He had the chance to meet Dr. Wheeler, who taught at Washington University and wrote one of the first books on dental tooth anatomy. Dr. Ames, who taught at Northwestern University and is credited with the Ames technique and inventing the stim-u-dent, and Dr. Bordon, who is credited with inventing the air-rotor, are other names that stick out.

But the real turning point in his collecting came when he met Dr. Richard Glenner in the 1970s. Dr. Glenner wrote articles about how the dental chair and other equipment evolved. Dr. Wexler was fascinated with his articles, and called him one day to talk about their common interest. As they talked, Dr. Glenner was amazed to hear about all the equipment Dr. Wexler actually had; he had only seen these items in catalogues and in photographs.

Dr. Glenner suggested they approach Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry about setting up a turn of the century dental display. Although museum officials didn’t seem interested in this at first, they eventually gave it the green light.

After the display was completed, Dr. Wexler invited deans from the dental programs at Northwestern University, Loyola University and the University of Illinois to come check out the display during an open house. The dean from the University of Illinois-Dr. Wexler’s Alma mater-did, and later asked Dr. Wexler to help with the school’s 75th anniversary celebration. He helped create a 75th anniversary book and even put together a display that can still be found on the dental school’s fifth floor.

That was the start of a 25-year relationship with the university, as well as more projects creating displays at dental schools and museums. Over the years he’s helped establish museums across the country, including at the Still College of Dentistry in Mesa, Ariz.; the Samuel B. Harris National Museum in Baltimore; the International College of Surgeons in Chicago; and Marquette Dental School in Milwaukee. Even though he still has a house full of dental equipment, he’s donated many items to share and preserve the history he’s gathered.

“That’s what my purpose is,” Dr. Wexler said. “I hate to part with the stuff…I’m trying to donate equipment to different schools and museums so it at least will be there for posterity and we can hold on to our history.”

It’s easier today

To put his collection together, Dr. Wexler spent a lot of time collecting catalogues, reaching out to colleagues and taking road trips during the summer to check out leads. These days, anyone interested in dental antiques can log onto eBay and easily find what they’re looking for, Dr. Wexler said. It’s become a more expensive hobby then it was when he first started, but you can do it without leaving home.

The dental community does seem to be interested in dental antiques and preserving the profession’s history, Dr. Wexler said. He spoke at this year’s Chicago Midwinter Meeting about his collection of dental antiques, and was surprised by the number of people who attended. He expected maybe 20, but got 150. And after talking to them about his collecting experiences, he had the chance to hear about the items some of the attendees have come across.

“I couldn’t believe the interest,” he said. “I’ve been getting calls left and right (since the talk) and afterward people swarmed around me, telling me what they found in the basement, what they have. I’m amazed at the interest in this and am so pleased about it.” 

A love of history

The history that goes along with these items is just as important as the items themselves. Dr. Wexler can tell you what time period certain equipment is from and he can talk about the main players in developing the equipment, some of which he’s even met. It all goes together. It’s about preserving the equipment and dentistry’s rich history.

Dr. Wexler still goes on eBay every now and then to see if anything sparks his interest, but he said he has most everything he wants-other than the Clark revolving dental cabinet from 1905.

Every piece Dr. Wexler has carries with it history and a story about the people he met to get it and the trip he took to pick it up. There’s something special about every piece of his collection, and a reason to love them all.

“You know, I don’t really have a favorite,” he said. “I think I like it all. I can’t pick one. Every piece has it’s own thing or it’s own charm.”

Renee Knight is a senior editor for DPR. Contact her at rknight@advanstar.com.