From the Dental Archives

Authors | Topics | Forthcoming

Citation of Original:

Dunning, WB. Greene Vardiman Black. Journal of the Allied Dental Societies 10(4) Dec. 1915:409-417.

Greene Vardiman Black: The Man, and His Work

However brilliant it may be in the eyes of men, the reputation of a prophet is uncertain, to say the least; time will show either the truth or the fallacy of what was projected on inspiration alone. But the teacher, though less honored or unhonored, as is often the case, spends his life in patient demonstration, and the magnitude of his work can only be seen in retrospect. The life and work of the Teacher is justly honored by Kipling:
Let us now praise famous men -
Men of little showing!
For their work continueth
And their work continueth
Broad and deep continueth -
Great, beyond their knowing.

It is a circumstance for which we all may be thankful that Greene Vardiman Black, M.D., D.D.S., Sc.D., LL.D., lived not to be acknowledged, by common consent, the leading figure in the slow progress of dental science from artisanship to its present place in the learned professions. Dr. Black's self-effacing modesty removes from the view all vapors of ego, and his work stands clear, as hills in the undiminished light of day.


Greene Vardiman Black was born (1) near Winchester, Scott County, Illinois, on August 3, 1836, and was son of William and Mary Black. His great-grandfather was Captain William Black, in the militia of North Carolina, and was one of the first officers to refuse the oath of allegiance to the British crown. Dr. Black's father was born in Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1796; in 1825 married Miss S. Vaughan. In the early thirties they moved to Scott County, Illinois, and later to a farm in Cass County, where the future man of science spent a wholesome boyhood, and where, in later years of stress, he went for refuge and refreshment. His love of the old farm was tenacious throughout life, and he was blessed in ending his days in the home of his boyhood, the house he and his brothers had helped their father to build.(2)

In those early days he lived much in the open, about the farm or hunting in the wide forest which then existed in that region. He grew up self-reliant and accustomed to hard work, and with the toughness of constitution so necessary for the strenuous future. Here also his love of nature, from daily contact, became perhaps the deepest trait in a many-sided personality. His delight in all matters related to the physical universe - from the habits of an insect to the vagaries of a comet - was never-ending; he was a "born" naturalist. A few Indians remained in that unsettled region, the hunter could still find wild turkeys, foxes, wolves; every man and boy knew the use of firearms. Such a life gave opportunity for his intimate knowledge. In later years, when he had earned something of a reputation as a scien-


tist, his brothers recalled his persistent habits of study - of hours spent in watching some insect or animal. Dr. Black's children remember many half holidays when the family went for a drive into the country, always with a few jars or boxes to bring home something from ponds or ditches for microscopic study, or butterflies or bugs, which might be examined with the hand lens and subsequently mounted. So his love of nature became the religion of a life dedicated to science. "Trees - flowers - sky" were the last words he was heard to utter before he became part of the infinite mystery.

Dr. Black began the study of medicine at about the age of seventeen, but before his twenty-first year he had developed a strong mechanical bent, inherited possibly from his father, which determined his choice of dentistry as his life work.

The following summary, compiled several years ago, outlines the leading events of his life:


Dr. Black's pre-eminent services to dental science were original investigations, reported in the publications above noted, and


many of his findings were of a revolutionary character. His first notable paper on "Gold Foil" (1869) dealt with the effect of certain gasses upon the surface of pure gold, whereby cohesion is prevented; it being then pointed out that when these gases are dispelled by heat, leaving the surfaces clean, perfect cohesion always results. This discovery has had an important bearing upon subsequent advances in filling methods.

His series of articles, published in 1886, on the peridental membrane and allied studies, form much of the foundation of our present-day knowledge. His writings in 1895-1896 on "An Investigation of The Physical Characters of The Human Teeth in Relation to Their Diseases and to Practical Dental Operations, Together with the Physical Characters of Filling Materials," made a great stir in the dental world. The famous phrase "extension for prevention" was first used at this time, and led to many bitter controversies, now long ago settled in favor of his main contention concerning cavity preparation. His investigations of dental amalgams, now forming the basis of manufacture, were at this time given to the dental profession, regardless of strong pressure from manufacturers to commercialize his special knowledge.

Dr. Black's books on dental anatomy, operative dentistry and dental pathology stand among the substantial monuments in dental literature.

His literary and scientific interests carried him into other fields, and the following list of unpublished papers(3) will indicate his versatility as a writer and original thinker:

Lectures on Zoological Chemistry, comprising 148 pages, Typhoid Fever, The Earth Worm, Man-Representative of the Universe, A Study of the Cicada (seventeen year locusts), The Mechanic Arts of 1776 and 1876, The Pathology of Scarlet Fever, Contractile Tissue, The Development of the Arts, Report on Scarlet Fever, The Basis of Morality, Studies of Fos-


sil Woods, The Microscopic and Its Uses, Inflammation, Progress of Civilization. The Practical Relations of Observation and Thought, Teeth of the Mammalia, A Contribution to the Theory of Sight, The City Waterworks, Waste Products of Thought, The Present Status of the Germ Theory of Disease (1885), Early Diagnosis of Disease of the Kidneys, The Balance of Reason, The Industrial Picture, Sam Marsden's Race for Life (an Indian Story), Influence of the Middle Man in the Formation of Social Castes in America, Manual Training as an Element in Education, Out Sailing, The Man Eater (a story), From Quebec up the Saguenay and Chicoutimi, Report of a Post-Mortem Examination, our Police System, How to Rest, Anatomy and Physiology as Illustrating the Functions of the Spiritual Man, Studies of Saprophitic Moulds, Not Tides but Barometric Waves (in the great lakes), Chicago Sanitary Canal and Waterway, Social Dangers to Young Men in the Professional Schools.

Dr. Black's avocations were many and interesting. For his summer vacations he frequently chose to go with one or several members of his family, or friends, far away from civilization, into the woods to camp, into the mountains to hunt and fish, or to northern Michigan to sail. He designed and built a sloop-rigged boat in which he cruised about the Straits of Mackinac and adjacent waters each summer for fifteen years. This boat was named the Microbe. It was equipped with government charts of the waters of the great lakes, and his studies of winds and waves and the rules of the sea were as thorough as those of everything else he undertook. He made many trips down the Mississippi to New Orleans. There are few great rivers of this continent which he did not travel. He followed his habit of writing on all such trips, and his unpublished manuscripts contain many interesting incidents of these journeys.

Dr. Black was a lover of music and was himself an accomplished musician. He was a church choir leader for many years. He not only sang well himself, but played the violin and the 'cello, also the cornet, flute and piccolo. Visitors to his home in the evening were often entertained by Dr. Black and his daughters with a program in which Dr. Black's part might consist of Shubert's Serenade on the violin, several of the old songs, as


"Laboard Watch,' "Annie Laurie," "Consider the Lilies," "The Land 'o the Leal," etc., with a number of 'cello accompaniments to the piano or voices of the daughters.

As an artist, Dr. Black's studies were again such as to place him in an enviable position. His home is decorated with many sketches of landscapes, and several excellent pen-and-ink portraits. The illustrations in the book on "Dental Anatomy," published in 1891, are all by his own hand, and many of them were made in his camp in the northern Michigan woods. The book on the "Periosteum and Peridental Membrane," published in 1887, contains many wonderful pen drawings of microscopial specimens of the various connective tissues. These drawings were reproduced in his work on "Special Dental Pathology," published during the present year. His volumes on "Operative Dentistry," published in 1908, are embellished with hundreds of his original drawings. Among the first of his drawings to be published were a number made in 1871, to illustrate a paper by Dr. T. L. Gilmer on fractures of the jaw. These are to be found in the transactions of the Illinois State Dental Society for that year.

Exactness was ever the watchword with Dr. Black. This trait is not better exemplified than in his work as a machinist and maker of fine scientific instruments. He designed and constructed one of the first cord-driven dental engines about 1870. When he undertook his investigations of amalgams in the early nineties, he required an instrument to measure the shrinkage and expansion of amalgams to the one-twenty-thousandth of an inch, and, after several instrument makers had failed to produce a satisfactory instrument, he went into his own laboratory and constructed one himself. His laboratory was a fully equipped machine shop, and there seemed to be no limit to his ability in this line. His original instruments for registering finger power in the use of pluggers, mallet force in condensing gold, the force required to chew foods, the results of stress on various filling materials, etc., are all monuments to his genius.

Probably no single instrument has proven of greater value that one designed but a few years ago for grinding microscopic specimens of hard tissues, such as the teeth calculus, fossils, etc. This machine is so constructed that it may be set to grind a specimen to any desired thinness-for example, to one-thousandth of an inch-and an automatic electric cut-off will stop the machine when the specimen is ground to the thinness for which the gauge is set.

Dr. Black became interested in the study of chemistry and metallurgy at an early day, and for a number of years conducted regular classes among the college and school teachers and physicians of Jacksonville. He also studied astronomy and most of the other sciences. This busy man also possessed a working knowledge of French and Latin, and a thorough knowledge of German.

From an early period he acquired habits of economizing time, which made possible his great thoroughness in carrying a given study to its conclusion before taking up another.

Enough has been said to indicate the scope of Dr. Black's works, of his many interests, and his immense capacity for accomplishment. This rich personality was accompanied by a modesty of bearing which endeared him to all with whom he came in contact. The writer of this sketch well remembers a call he once paid upon Dr. Black at the Northwestern University Dental School. Though a youngster and almost a stranger the dean's welcome was so kindly that we were apparently old friends in a few moments. Slipping his arm through mine, he took me about the fine infirmary, which he had designed, and pointed out the special adaptations of equipment and lighting; then we went down a private stair into a little room which he kept for himself-filled with his apparatus, specimens, drawings and models; and there we chatted in the midst of his work. The kindliness of his smile and of his manner, his evident desire to place his new acquaintance at ease, made an impression which has not diminished in the passing of years. Dr. Black his been honored wherever dental science exists, but, what is more, loved by his innumerable friends.

William B. Dunning

(1) Most of the data here presented have been drawn from a biographical sketch in the Jacksonville Daily Journal, Sept. 1, which was based on the report of the testimonial banquet to Dr. Black in 1910, published originally in The Dental Review; also from the excellent article by Dr. C. E. Bentley in the November issue of The Journal of the National Dental Association. The writer is further indebted to Dr. Arthur Black for an intimate view of the personal traits of his father, which have not before been published. - EDITOR.
(2) Even the bricks were "home baked" from a nearby clay bed, and the lumber sawn from the standing timber.
(3) C. E. Bentley. Journal of the National Dental Association, November, 1915, p. 313.

Data entry: KWE.

Back to From the Dental Archives homepage

URL of this page:
Feedback to Pat Anderson:
Date last edited: May 12, 1999.