Crowns & Confidences,
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 oneThomas 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
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
Warners 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
Evans motto"gold, only gold"was
a wise one, says Dr. Milton B. Asbell GD54 G81, 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 didnt decay; and when you were
finished you could polish it and it looked like a piece of jewelry."
Evans didnt invent the techniquewhich involves taking paper-thin
sheets of gold, rolling them into tiny balls and then hammering them into
a cavity, where they coalesce into each otherbut 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 Institutes 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 ParisDr. Cyrus Starr Brewster, whose clients
included King Louis Philippe and his courthad 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.
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 NapoleonNapoleon Bonapartes
nephewhad gone from exiled pretender to president of the French
Republic; a coup detat 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 princes 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 patronagenot
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."
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 wellthe first of many diplomaciesbut 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 empresss 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 emperors 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. Earlys 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 Napoleons 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 boys 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
In Washington, D.C.,
the mood is glum, both for the prospects of ending the war and for President
Lincolns 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 generals
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 Napoleonwho decides not to recognize the
Confederacy, after all. The emperor later tells Evans that as soon as
he read of Shermans 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."