The Birth of the Dental Assistant Profession

The American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) celebrated its 90th birthday this past March. On March 17, 1925 the ADAA was incorporated in Illinois.

The dental assistant profession can be traced as far back as 1885 when the wife of New Orleans dentist, Dr. Edmund Kells began assisting him in his practice. Dr. Kells paved the way for many changes in the dental profession including exposure of dental x-rays and a variety of inventions that continue to benefit dentistry today.

As Dr. Kells dental practice grew he hired Malvina Cueria, a teenage girl as a full time assistant. During the late 19th century women generally would not pursue dental treatments without permission of their husbands. The addition of two women to Dr. Kells staff brought a flood of women to the practice who were able to seek safe dental treatment in the presence of women. Not long after, other dentists advertised “Ladies in Attendance” to attract female clients. This was the true beginning of the dental assistant profession.

By 1917 the first dental assistant society had formed in Nebraska. Juliette A. Southard was hired as a dental assistant in New York and after hearing about the society in Nebraska, she formed one in New York in 1921. Southard then organized the first national convention of dental assistants which took place in Dallas in 1924. This in turn led to the birth of the ADAA shortly after in 1925. Southard became the first president of the ADAA and the headquarters remains in Illinois where it originated.

Today, the world of dental assisting has evolved and professionals have greater responsibility and knowledge than ever before. Dental assistants now take X-rays, oversee the dental practice and work in a variety of settings. They are an important part of any dental practice and it all began with one dentist and his wife.