Nellie Chapman was the first female dentist in the West

Addressing the California State Medical Society in 1875, Dr. Alfred E. Regensburger suggested a way to deal with the growing number of women interested in medical careers. “If we ignore them and downplay their efforts,” he said, “they will be forced to abandon the idea of being a part of medicine.”

Born in May of 1847, Nellie Pooler Chapman was undeterred. She grew up in Nevada City, a gold mining town in the Sierra foothills, and married a local dentist, Allen Chapman, at the age of 14.

Miners would show up at the Chapmans’ doorstep after exhausting crude remedies of the day like Cocaine Toothache Drops or bloodying one’s gums with an iron nail then hammering the nail into a wooden board.

Though Nellie had no formal education, she assisted in her husband’s practice. After some years, Allen set off across the Nevada border to seek fortune at the Comstock Silver Lode, leaving Nellie in charge of the dental office. In 1875, she made it official. Based on her training as an apprentice, she became the first woman in the western territories to register as a dentist.

Since Allen was often out of town, it was not uncommon for Nellie to be the only dentist for 100 miles between Sacramento and Donner Lake — at a time in California when when men vastly outnumbered women. She practiced dentistry for 30 years until her death, attributed to “exhaustion,” in 1906. Her obituary in the Grass Valley Daily Union focused on her hobbies of writing and singing, mentioning her dentistry almost as an aside. She was 59.

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