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Dental Assistant

Dental assisting: Past, present, and our bright future

May 31, 2023
Early dental assistants blazed the trail for us today. You should be proud of your profession and all that we have accomplished.

I love being a dental assistant. Dental assistants are a key part of the dental practice year-round, and we strengthen the entire practice and enhance patient satisfaction. The American Dental Assistants Association says, "Dental assistants are committed to professional development and quality dental care.” They're correct.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Women's Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, New York. The feisty women who so bravely started the movement there in 1848 were true pioneers, determined to make a better way of life for every woman who came after them. While I was there, it led me to think about the women who were pioneers in dental assisting.

A look back at the trailblazers

Dr. C. Edmond Kells was a visionary in the dental field. His early work with the latest technology of the time, x-rays, helped advance their use in dentistry. In 1885, Dr. Kells enlisted the help of his wife in his dental practice. With the much-needed help, Dr. Kells’ practice flourished. I imagine that his wife’s primary focus was to help clean, organize instruments, and update records, which left her husband time to perform more dentistry. The practice flourished so much that it became necessary to hire another assistant, or "ladies in attendance" as we were known then.

That assistant was Malvina Cueria, just a teenager at the time, but she is considered to be the first dental assistant in modern history. Because women were now present in the dental office, it was acceptable for a respectable lady to visit the dentist’s office without a chaperone. At the age of 87, Malvina was honored for her contributions to dentistry. It's amazing to think about all the history she saw in her career!

In March 1925, after much effort and determination, Juliette Southard, an assistant who helped organize dental assistant organizations throughout the country, became the first president of the new national organization called the American Dental Assistants Association. Juliette worked tirelessly to promote the profession and improve the quality of care patients received.

I think about what women like Malvina and Juliette had to endure. Malvina unknowingly made great strides for women’s rights. And Juliette had a desire to grow our profession and unite us in an organization that we could be proud of. These women forged a path for every one of you reading this today. I believe they would be proud of what we've become, and I’m excited to see where we still have to go.

Through the years, dental assistants, determined to reach a little higher, have explored new ideas and suggested legislative changes in our industry that are a complement to our profession. Many great assistants have served on the board of the ADAA, led committees, acted as trustees, or served as local chapter board members. Other great assistants have worked locally to bring about change, while others work in offices all across the country.

Hazel Torres, said to be an inspiration to an entire generation of assistants, is one of the original authors of Modern Dental Assisting, an textbook now in its 13th addition! She served on numerous boards and committees during her career, and was adored by everyone who knew her. As an inspiration and educator, Hazel touched many lives. She was the first Registered Dental Assistant Extended Functions (RDAEF) in California, president of the ADAA, and the first assistant to serve as a member of the California Dental Board.

Linda Miles, who began her career in 1961 as a dental assistant, was asked to move to the front desk. She told me she protested about the move. But being the loyal dental assistant she was, she did what she was asked. During her long career, Linda was an inspiration to the world of dentistry. For 60 years her dedication and vision shaped practice management and dentistry. A true icon, her legacy continues to inspire and educate those of us still in the field. Simply put, she is a phenomenal woman!

Then there is Cindy Bradley, who has an extensive list of volunteer work, accomplishments, and recognitions. Cindy is the director of the dental assisting program at Orlando Tech. She has served as president of the Florida Dental Assistants Association and the ADAA. She was the recipient of the prestigious ADAA/Colgate Community Volunteer Award—along with 41 students and two other instructors from Orlando Tech—for a community outreach project. She has devoted her life to education and the advancement of our profession. She is a powerhouse!

Today's trailblazers

Assistants and educators today, such as Kim Bland, Holly Bryant, and Kevin Henry, work hard to educate and inspire a new generation of assistants. The numerous past presidents and board members of the ADAA, including the current executive board, Mary Beth Sojka, president; Lisa Childers Hernandez, president-elect; Ronda Lane, first vice president; Betty Fox, second vice president, and Sue Camizzi, immediate past president, work to keep our profession moving forward.

Among other tasks, they offer help toward legislation. Each of these women have an incredible history of promoting our profession and working hard to keep our name and association alive. There are so many dental assistants working hard every day in offices across the nation. 

Including you! You work hard every day to promote your practice and profession. You go to work every day to help your employer, your patients, and your team. You go the extra mile and seldom get the recognition you deserve. I say you do a little something extra for yourself and your fellow dental assistants, and hopefully your practice celebrates you, too, because you deserve it!

 Keep in mind the words of Juliette Southard that have become part of the creed for the ADAA and still ring true today: "To develop initiative means having the courage to assume responsibility, and the imagination to create ideas and develop them." These words should inspire us to make great changes in our profession and ourselves. To say we can’t do something is an excuse for not doing it. Look at where we started and where we are today. Assistants just like you became positive forces for our profession.

YOU are amazing, and I hope you always remember that!

Originally published in 2011 and updated regularly.