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Crowns & Confidences, continued...

From a very early age, Evans had an unusual sense of destiny. The boy who grew up in a Quaker household near what is now 37th and Chestnut streets saw his name "on a silver plate or perhaps a brass one—Thomas W. Evans, Dentist," he later wrote. "At night I dreamed of this plate on the door, of people coming to have their teeth filled, new ones made for them … and even in those childish days I thought perhaps I might some day be called Doctor … "
    His father tried to steer him toward a career as a lawyer, but finally gave in and let the sure-handed Tom become apprenticed to a silver- and goldsmith named Joseph Warner. There he became adept at manipulating metals; picked the brains of any dentists who came into Warner’s shop; and read whatever books on dentistry he could get his hands on. His first patients were sheep and dogs and cattle, whose teeth he would drill and then fill with a tin-foil amalgam. Later, some trusting two-legged souls allowed him to plug their cavities.
    In 1843, having attended lectures at Jefferson Medical College and studied with a leading Philadelphia dentist, he earned a certificate permitting him to practice the "art and mystery of dentistry." After practicing briefly in Baltimore, he hung out his shingle in Lancaster, Pa., and began making a name for himself with the new technique of gold-foil fillings.
    Evans’ motto—"gold, only gold"—was a wise one, says Dr. Milton B. Asbell GD’54 G’81, author of A Century of Dentistry: A History of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine 1878-1978. Gold, he explains, "adhered to all surfaces of the tooth; it didn’t decay; and when you were finished you could polish it and it looked like a piece of jewelry." Evans didn’t invent the technique—which involves taking paper-thin sheets of gold, rolling them into tiny balls and then hammering them into a cavity, where they coalesce into each other—but his expertise with it brought him his fame and much of his fortune.
    In 1847, he won the "First Premium" for his gold-foil fillings at the Franklin Institute’s exhibition of arts and manufacture. The exhibit caught the eye of a Philadelphia physician named John C. Clark, who had retired to Paris and returned for a visit. An American dentist in Paris—Dr. Cyrus Starr Brewster, whose clients included King Louis Philippe and his court—had asked Clark to find him an able young assistant. Clark recommended Evans, and that November the 24-year-old dentist and his wife, Agnes, arrived by steamer in France.

After the fall: Napoleon III (right), the Empress Eugénie and the prince imperial in England, 1871.

    A few months later, the Revolution of 1848 sent Louis Philippe, the "Citizen King," packing. By the end of that year, Prince Louis Napoleon—Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew—had gone from exiled pretender to president of the French Republic; a coup d’etat in 1851 paved the way for him to become Emperor Napoleon III.
    By then he was already a patient of Evans, who had responded to an urgent summons to relieve a howling toothache the year before. Evans, filling in for Brewster (who was either traveling or ill), had handled the prince’s molar with gentle efficiency. As he was leaving, Louis Napoleon said: "You are a young fellow, but clever. I like you." It was, to borrow from another Paris-loving American, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
    Each had a good deal to offer the other. Evans provided relief from frequent agony (the emperor, he wrote, had "extremely delicate teeth" and was "more than usually sensitive to pain") as well as his agreeable company and keen observations. Louis Napoleon, of course, could offer the enormous prestige of his imperial patronage—not to mention inside information about his plans to rebuild Paris, which enabled Evans to buy up strategically situated real estate and then sell it, at very handsome profits.
    The emperor, who was enlightened enough to value talent and character over pedigree, "had an excellent opinion of dentists in general," wrote Evans, "and saw no reason why they should not be as proud of their specialty as the practitioners of any branch of medicine or surgery."
    It was a good time to be an American dentist, armed with a good knowledge of anatomy and the latest scientific advancements. In the wake of the French Revolution, the profession had regressed to a medieval level, its status discernible from the old French proverb, "To lie like a dentist."

The carriage used to smuggle Eugénie out of Paris was once on display in the Evans Museum (now an emergency clinic) of the dental school.

    "Physicians and surgeons considered the care of the teeth as unworthy of their attention and science," wrote Evans, and as a result, "extractions were left to be performed by mountebanks at street corners, or fakirs at fairs, where the howls of the victims were drowned by the beating of drums, the clash of cymbals and the laughter and applause of the delighted and admiring crowd." Dentists, he added pointedly, were "expected to enter the house by the back-stairs," and he admitted that the occasional barb at his profession "sometimes left a sting." After a few years, Evans’ reputation had reached a level where, if his wealthy patients did not treat him with the respect he thought he and his profession were owed, he politely sent them elsewhere. The effects of that, he noted, were "wonderful."
    When Louis Napoleon began casting about for a wife, he entrusted Evans with the task of sounding out Princess Caroline Stephanie of Sweden while he tended to the royal bicuspids. Evans carried out his mission well—the first of many diplomacies—but in the end Napoleon married the Spanish Countess of Teba, Eugénie-Marie de Montijo de Guzman, in 1853. Evans, who had been filling her cavities, too, was naturally invited to the wedding, and later that year he was formally appointed "Surgeon Dentist to the Emperor," with a status comparable to that of the court physicians.
    When Evans was about to depart for a visit to the United States in 1854, the emperor invited him to the Palace St.-Cloud, receiving him in the empress’s antechamber. He then brought out the five-pointed star of the Legion of Honor, and pinned it on Evans’ jacket.
    "We want you to go home a knight," said Louis Napoleon, at which point Eugénie entered the room, saying that she wanted "to be the first to congratulate the Chevalier."
    "I hope your friends in America," the emperor added, "will understand how much you are appreciated by us."

A summer day in 1864. The emperor’s private study at Compiègne. Louis Napoleon is in an unusually somber mood. The American Civil War is going badly again, he reminds Evans; General J.A. Early’s army is advancing on Washington; and he would not be at all surprised to be awakened some day soon by the news that the capital has been captured. He informs Evans that he is being pressured by England to recognize the Confederacy as the only way to bring about the end of the war, and acknowledges that he is strongly considering doing so.
   
Such a move would be devastating to the Union, and Evans, the only pro-Northern voice to have Louis Napoleon’s ear, knows that he has to make a strong case. The war, he tells the emperor, is "certainly approaching an end"; the resources of the South are almost exhausted; and with nearly a million seasoned soldiers in the field, the military power of the North is "irresistible." Becoming "warm," as he later put it, and "quite carried away by my subject," he pleads for, in his own words, "hands off and to wait a little longer," since recognizing the Confederacy "would only cause much more blood to flow."
   
At that moment a hidden door opens in the wall. The eight-year-old prince imperial, known as Lou-Lou, enters the room. Evans goes for the heart. "For this boy’s sake you cannot act," he says, putting his arm around Lou-Lou. "He is to succeed you, and the people of my country would visit it upon his head, if you had helped to destroy our great and happy Union."
   
Before the emperor has a chance to respond, Evans offers to take the next steamer to the United States and assess the military and political situation for himself, then report back. Louis Napoleon, with a hint of amusement, gives him his blessing and agrees to hold off on a decision until he receives Evans’ report.
   
In Washington, D.C., the mood is glum, both for the prospects of ending the war and for President Lincoln’s reelection. Evans meets with a "rather gloomy and dispirited" Seward and a guardedly optimistic Lincoln, who according to Evans is "much pleased" with the self-appointed mission. "Well, I guess we shall be able to pull through; it may take some time," Lincoln concludes. "But we shall succeed, I think." He and Seward suggest that Evans visit General Ulysses S. Grant, and provide him with a special pass and introductions.

Nightfall at City Point, Va., where the Army of the Potomac is laying siege to Richmond and Petersburg. A large campfire keeps the mosquitoes somewhat at bay. Grant lights a cigar, throws his leg over the arm of his chair and begins to talk.
   
It is the first of several personal meetings. Grant is frank and open with Evans, allowing him to take notes about his military strategy and discussing his correspondence with General William Tecumseh Sherman, which will lead to the famous march through Georgia. Grant is "very positive about the final result of the war," writes Evans, who is impressed with the general’s military bearing. Together, they ride toward Richmond, at times drawing near enough to see the Confederate pickets; occasionally a shot whistles over their heads. (Grant will later write to his wife suggesting that they send one of their sons to France to be educated under Evans’ auspices, and after his presidency will be entertained by Evans in Paris.)
   
Back in Washington, the mood is increasingly optimistic, and Evans concludes that the end of the war is "not far distant." He writes a letter detailing his observations to Louis Napoleon—who decides not to recognize the Confederacy, after all. The emperor later tells Evans that as soon as he read of Sherman’s proposed plan to cut to the sea through Georgia, he saw by his maps that it was the "beginning of the end."
   
Evans was not an entirely modest man, but any suspicions that he might have exaggerated his own influence with Louis Napoleon were, according to Seward, "entirely removed during our civil war … The execution of the trust by the doctor was in all respects moderate and becoming."

 

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