WELL I remember Dr. Evans, who was our family dentist. He
had a black beard. Many tales of his "successes" were whispered,
perhaps fostered by himselfbe that as it may, he was certainly attracted
It seemed somehow symbolic of the fashionable Second
Empire that for the first time in history a dentist had succeeded in achieving
an establishment comparable to [that of] a prince.Baroness Agnes
de Stoeckl, When Men Had Time.
IT SOMETIMES HAPPENS
when the crowned heads of Europe wish to communicate with one another
without any responsibility they send for Evans to fix their teeth. As
you are not likely to send so far for a dentist, I need only add that
the messages of this sort, which he bears, are always communicated to
him by word of mouth and in the presence of no witnesses.Letter
from John Bigelow, American Consul-General in Paris, to William Seward,
U.S. Secretary of State, November 21, 1862.
Some professions, by their
very nature, suggest glamour, intrigue, adventure. Dentistry, with all
due respect, is not one of them. Which makes the achievements of Dr. Thomas
Evansthe West Philadelphia native who funded the dental institute
and museum that bears his name (and which merged, after his death, with
Penns School of Dentistry)all the more remarkable.
of the dentist as a young man.
Having moved from Pennsylvania to Paris in 1847 without even speaking
French, he became the dentist of choice and the trusted friend of a glittering
array of kings, princes, empresses, grand duchesses, czars, sultans and
other potentates. (A visit from Evans, wrote Baroness de Stoeckl, was
a "profound honour," since he chose his patients "as a
King chooses his Ministers.") He became the court-appointed surgeon-dentist
and confidant of the Emperor Napoleon III and his wife, the Empress Eugénie,
and he probably saved the latters life at the fall of the Second
Empire when he helped her escape from the Parisian mob to England. (Evans
also helped save the life of Germanys Crown Prince Frederick long
enough for him to reign for 99 days as Emperor Frederick III by fashioning
a silver tracheotomy cannula for the princes cancerous throat, allowing
him to breathe.)
Although he spent most of
his life in France, and lived in many ways like a FrenchmanLe
Gaulois opined that Evans "had a thoroughly Parisian look about
him and could inspire our instinctive friendship"he remained
a loyal American citizen. He was largely responsible for convincing Napoleon
III not to recognize the Confederacy, thus keeping France firmly on the
sidelines of the American Civil War. "I have a feeling that in many
ways he saw himself as a successor to Benjamin Franklin, serving as an
American in Paris," says Dr. D. Walter Cohen D50, former dean
of the dental school. "He really was a Renaissance person."
And, like Franklin, he valued both the useful and the ornamental.
Evans was, unquestionably,
a highly skilled and innovative dentistin addition to his deft touch
with gold-foil fillings, he was the first to use vulcanite rubber as a
base for dentures (turning down a franchise offered him by Charles Goodyear);
he also introduced nitrous oxide as an anesthetic to Europe. In a time
when teeth were a source of unalloyed miseryand in a country where
the dental arts were the province of quackshis talents were bankable.
But the fact that so many important men and women trusted him was due
to his reassuring chair-side manner, his engaging conversationand
his discretion. He once described himself as "my patients father
confessor," and he liked to say that: "Ears hear, but they as
mouth must often close."
Highly sensitive to human
suffering, he introduced a light, ventilated, American-style ambulance
and field hospital to the French, which saved many lives during the Franco-Prussian
War of 1870-71. ("It is the dream of every French soldier, if he
is wounded, to be taken to this ambulance," wrote Henry Labouchere,
Paris correspondent for the London Daily News.) For such contributions
he was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor, the first American to
enter the ranks of that organization.
Along the way, he became
the publisher of the American Register, an English-language newspaper
in Paris; organized the American Charitable Association of Paris to aid
indigent American citizens; helped found the first American community
church in Paris; and gave 100,000 francs to the Lafayette Home for young
American women who came to Paris to study art.
As the Second Empire gave
way to the Third Republic, "Handsome Tom" took on a beautiful
mistress, Méry Laurent, who inspired so many artists and writersincluding
Edouard Manet and the poet Stéphane Mallarméthat one
wag appreciatively dubbed her "toute la lyre," the lyre
in question being that of Orpheus. While acquiring mistresses may not
rank among lifes loftiest achievements, this one did indirectly
lead to an art collection that Le Figaro hyperbolically described
as "one of the most important and best collections of paintings which
exists." It included several by Manet himself, three of which would
resurface in the dental schools storage warehouse nearly 80 years
after Evans deaththus providing the foundation of the schools
A few of the nearly 200 medals,
ribbons and other gaudy baubles he received from his royal clients still
hang in a glass case at the entrance to the dental-school library. The
carriage that Evans used to smuggle Eugénie out of Paris has been
rescued from a shed at the New Bolton Center by Dr. James F. Galbally
Jr. GD74, associate dean of the dental school, and taken to the
Blérancourt Museum near Paris as a symbol of Franco-American friendship.
The Manets are hanging in museums in Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Evans letters and papers are in the Department of Special Collections
in Van Pelt Library and the dental-school library. The jewelsdiamond
necklaces, ruby-studded snuffboxes, brooches and rings and stickpins,
inventoried at more than $1 million after his deathare in museums
and private hands. Other paintings and gifts from royal patients will
again be on display when the schools new Schattner Center opens
in 2001. By such remains can we identify the man.
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