The History of Dental Assistants and the ADAA

An important look back in dental history

A dentist and his assistant work on a patient


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Dental Assistants Recognition Week is the first full week of March and has been celebrated since 1978. It is a time for all dental professionals to recognize the commitment dental assistants make to their profession, employers, and patients. The history of this profession and their values can lead to further appreciation of these dental care providers.

Dental Assistants Began as Ladies in Attendance

Dental assistants were first known as "ladies in attendance," dating back to 1885. New Orleans dentist C. Edmund Kells was a pioneer in the use of X-rays and treating dental abscesses. He incorporated his wife into his dental practice to assist him when needed. Her duties were likely mixing dental materials and cleaning up after procedures. As Kells' dental practice became more successful, the need for additional help prompted him to hire Malvina Cueria. Recognized as the first dental assistant in modern history, Malvina Cueria was only a teen when she began her career. Her presence in the dental office made it possible for women to have dental treatment done without their husbands' company in the operatory, an unrecognized triumph for women's rights.

Malvina Cueria served as an American Dental Assistants Association district trustee from 1953 to 1956. At the age of 87, she was honored by the professional organization and spoke of her experiences as a dental assistant in the beginnings of dentistry at a convention in New Orleans in 1980. She passed away on December 4, 1991, at the age of 98.

The Beginnings of a National Organization

The early 1900s were a ground-breaking period for American dental assistants. Juliette Southard was hired by Dr. Henry Fowler, a practicing New York City dentist, in 1911. Known for her sincere dedication to her profession and intelligence, Juliette utilized her leadership skills and formed a dental assistants society in New York in 1921, following the first dental assistants' society formed in Nebraska in 1917.

Southard was determined to form a national organization for dental assistants. She broke professional barriers and petitioned for herself and Jessie Ellsworth, president of the Chicago and Cook County Dental Assistants Association, to attend the 1923 American Dental Association convention. The American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA) was formed at a meeting in Dallas 1924 and Southard was elected the first president. After bylaws and a constitution were carefully established, the association was officially incorporated on March 17, 1925, in Illinois. Chicago remains the current home for the ADAA.

Modern Profession, Modern Organization

The "oldest and largest professional association dedicated to making dental assisting a profession," the ADAA provides its members with:

  • Professional liability insurance
  • Accidental death and dismemberment insurance
  • Home study and continuing education discounts, and as an added benefit, no grading fee for its members
  • A subscription to "The Dental Assistant Journal"
  • Perks such as credit card programs, medical insurance programs, disability income plans in most states, group term life insurance plans, hotel, and car rental discounts, and prescription drug discounts

The ADAA membership also includes membership at national, state and local levels.

Awarding Members in Her Honor

Today, members of the ADAA have the opportunity to apply for the Juliette Southard/Oral-B Laboratories Scholarship program. Created in 1929, the program awards scholarships to student members enrolled in dental assisting programs or members taking courses aimed at furthering a career in dental assisting. It's funded in part by a grant from Oral-B Laboratories, the ADAA, and volunteer donations. If you are interested in applying for the scholarship, visit the ADAA's website for an application and submission deadlines.

Her Words: The ADAA Creed

The ADAA Creed is reprinted with their permission to show the values their members hold:

"To be loyal to my employer, my calling and myself."

"To develop initiative—having the courage to assume responsibility and the imagination to create ideas and develop them."

"To be prepared to visualize, take advantage of, and fulfill the opportunities of my calling."

"To be a co-worker—creating a spirit of cooperation and friendliness rather than one of fault-finding and criticism."

"To be enthusiastic—for therein lies the easiest way to accomplishment."

"To be generous, not alone of my name but of my praise and my time."

"To be tolerant with my associates, for at times I too make mistakes."

"To be friendly, realizing that friendship bestows and receives happiness."

"To be respectful of the other person’s viewpoint and condition."

"To be systematic, believing that system makes for efficiency."

"To know the value of time for both my employer and myself."

"To safeguard my health, for good health is necessary for the achievement of a successful career."

"To be tactful—always doing the right thing at the right time."

"To be courteous—for this is the badge of good breeding."

"To walk on the sunny side of the street, seeing the beautiful things in life rather than fearing the shadows."

"To keep smiling always."


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