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Who the hell is that? Greene Vardiman Black

Who the hell is that? Greene Vardiman Black

G.V. Black (photo by Stephen Markley)

Resplendent in its statues honoring great Chicagoans, Americans, and French explorers, Lincoln Park is also home to some very obscure memorials. Last time, we focused on the trail-blazing explorer René-Robert Cavelier de la Salle, and this time we will be looking at a dentist.

That’s right, a dentist.

With the highly unwieldy name Greene Vardiman Black, it’s not surprising that the pioneering dentist and the first dean of Northwestern University Dental School simply went by “G.V.” Black in most cases (and were his parents just going for a really cheap laugh when they named him “Greene Black”?).

According to Chicago History Museum archivist Peter Alter, Black is known as the “Father of Modern Dentistry.”

“We look back from 2011, and we see him as inconsequential because dentistry is much different today, but at the time Chicago was trying to show all its successes, and it had one of these leaders of technology,” said Alter. “I’d imagine for folks planning statutes in Lincoln Park, it was a no-brainer.”

Every time you go to the dentist, you are experiencing techniques and technology Black first pioneered. Among Black’s achievements, he invented “one of the first cord-driven, foot-powered dental engines”— or, a dental drill. He also devised a new classification system for caries lesions that (with one addition) is still used by dentists today (appropriately called “Black’s Classification of Caries Lesions”).

“Apparently, he wrote what was at the time a ground-breaking article on the preservation of gold foil,” Alter added. “He developed a way to make sure dentists didn’t buy gold foil that would go bad and that they could preserve it until the dentist could use it to fill a cavity.”

Think of Black as the Steve Jobs of dentistry.

OK, you may be saying to yourself, that’s all well and good, but how did a guy who invented a tooth drill and gold foil preservation methods end up with a monument in Lincoln Park along with guys like Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin?

“He’s not Albert Schweitzer,” admitted Alter, referring to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning physician. “But he’s making these incremental advances. You have to keep in mind this was a time in the U.S. and Western Europe when everyone is celebrating every advance, and there’s this belief that science and technology would eliminate disease — in this case dental disease — and that science and technology would solve all of our problems. In a time when that was really valued, it helps explain why he was seen as prominent enough to get a statue after his death in 1915.”

Indeed, the statue by artist Frederick Hibbard was erected in 1918.

One Response to Who the hell is that? Greene Vardiman Black

  1. Greetings! I am a local author and illustrator and have recently published Giants in the Park: A Guide to Portrait Statues in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. My book takes the reader on a sculpture tour of Chicago’s largest park. It is the only current and in-print book on Chicago sculpture, and with a watercolor-rendered map on the back cover, the reader is equipped for a self-guided tour.

    In addition to honoring the memory of the heroes in bronze with biographical sketches and with watercolor-rendered illustrations, this guide features the stories behind the monuments — stories about the artists, the benefactors, and the unveiling ceremonies. While researching the park’s sixteen vintage portrait statues, I came across mentions of statues that were missing, so the histories of seven “lost” statues are included as well.

    I invite you to visit my website to learn more about my book project. On my website you’ll see that I offer walking tours and bike tours, and I also offer a slide show presentation for groups interested in local history and art.

    I invite you to “Like” my Facebook page “Giants in the Park” and join the dialog.

    Enjoy the tour!
    Krista August

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