It Happened at Michigan — A pioneer admired by classmates and patients


Ida Gray had a soothing approach with her dental patients.

“Her blushing, winning way makes you feel like finding an extra tooth any way to allow her to pull,” gushed a writer with the Richmond Planet, an African American newspaper based in Virginia.

A photo of a woman from an old book
Alumna Ida Gray as she was featured in the 1900 book, “A New Negro for a New Century,” by Booker T. Washington, N.B. Wood and Fannie Barrier Williams.

Gray made the news one year after her 1890 graduation from what was then called the U-M College of Dental Surgery. By earning her D.D.S., Gray became the nation’s first Black female dentist.

Gray set up practice in Cincinnati, where she had grown up and first showed an interest in dentistry as a high school student. Her mentor was Jonathan Taft, a local dentist who strongly believed in educating young women to work in a profession dominated by men. Taft was dean of the Ohio College of Dental Surgery and later president of the American Dental Association. While U-M recruited him in 1875 to lead its new dental school, Taft kept a home and office in Cincinnati.

Gray spent three years working as an office assistant for Taft, who encouraged her to enroll as a U-M dental student. She began classes in the fall of 1887 and excelled in her classes.

In Gray’s second year, her fellow students elected her class vice president. When she graduated in 1890, she “stood at the head of a very large class, having made the highest percentage in a very rigid examination,” reported the Cleveland Gazette, an African American newspaper. Gray was one of three women in a graduating class of 37 dentists.

A photo of the old Dental College at U-M
When Ida Gray attended U-M, the Dental College was on South University Avenue, where the Clements Library sits today. (Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library)

Working in Cincinnati, Gray treated both African American and white patients. “Miss Gray is a very accomplished lady, and is spoken of in the highest terms of the press without regard to nationality,” noted the Afro-American Encyclopedia in 1895. That same year, Gray married James S. Nelson and moved to Nelson’s hometown of Chicago. By opening her practice in Chicago, Ida Gray Nelson became the city’s first Black woman dentist.

Gray practiced for 40 years before retiring, and died in Chicago in 1953.

The School of Dentistry presents the Ida Gray Awards annually to students, staff and faculty who create a welcoming, inclusive environment throughout the school.


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