Deformities like cleft palate once befuddled all dentists and surgeons, none of whom could find reliable, workable solutions to those truly vexing problems. Around the world, tens of thousands of victims suffered as social outcasts due to congenital deformities. Many were unable to speak, but nearly 160 years ago, that began to change. Since that time, millions have been helped, thanks to the work of the Father of Modern Orthodontia—who happens to be a North Country native.
Norman William Kingsley was born on October 26, 1829, in Stockholm, a sparsely populated town in northern St. Lawrence County. The family had moved there from Vermont, but when Norman was four years old, they returned to the Green Mountain State, living at different locations in the Rutland area.
Evidence of Norman’s precocity was clear early on. At five years old, he was in a beginner’s geography class. At nine and ten, he took the job of arriving early each day to warm the schoolhouse for incoming students. The pay of 50 cents per season netted him a full dollar after two winters. He used the money to purchase schoolbooks and a copy of Comstock’s Philosophy, which contained the following chapters: Properties of Bodies, Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Hydraulics, Pneumatics, and Acoustics. While it sounds more appropriate for a senior rather than a ten-year-old, young Kingsley went right to work, using the book to create and test windmills, a powered saw, and water wheels. He even tried to build a working clock. This was no ordinary boy.
From Vermont, the family moved to Pennsylvania. For three years, ages 12 to 14, he cut trees and chopped wood in the summer to clear land. In rugged winter conditions, he walked three miles to school, and also tended to morning and evening chores at home year round.
At 15, he worked in an Elmira (New York) store, followed by a stint as bookkeeper for a foundry and machine shop, but neither job challenged him sufficiently. Without the funds to start his own store, he said, “I was credited, however, with capital of another kind: the ability to use my fingers in the arts. Dentistry was then a mechanic art.” His successful dentist uncle was perceived as an opportunity.
Skeptical of the idea, his uncle reluctantly agreed to a six-month apprenticeship, beginning as a laboratory worker. Norman was not allowed to make block teeth (replacement teeth), for each dentist considered his procedure a trade secret. But before his uncle had made a full set of teeth, Kingsley, after spying on the process, felt ready to create his own, which he secretly did. Years later he recalled that his uncle’s only comment upon seeing them was, “Humph”—a man of few words, but apparently pleased. Said Norman, “After that, all the block teeth that were required were carved by me so long as I remained.”
In 1850, at the end of six months, he turned professional, but a failed partnership in Owego, New York, left him in dire straits. With a can-do attitude, he made flyers and posted them all over town, built his own furniture, made some business connections, and opened his own office across the street.
It worked, and his practice thrived, but Norman was soon itching for more. In his own words, “After a year’s experience in everything that a country dentist is called upon to do, I became ambitious and wanted a larger field.”
He left Owego for New York City in 1851, and by May 1852 had established a partnership—just two years and one month after first setting foot in his uncle’s dental lab as a complete novice.
In 1853, the New York World’s Fair featured a dentistry exhibit with leading dentists as judges. Kingsley was excited at the possibilities. “I prepared for it by making for patients sets of teeth, both partial and full, all mounted on gold, and borrowed them for exhibition, making duplicates on silver to be worn [by the patients] while the fair lasted. Thus I avoided the charge of making just ‘show pieces,’ and could prove my work to be ‘practical.’ ” He won first prize for the best porcelain portrayal of natural teeth.
Two years later, at the Paris Exhibition, he won again. In the wake of such encouraging developments, he focused on the improvement of methods and results. And then, in 1859, a seminal moment occurred with the arrival of an unusual patient at his doorstep.
A Virginia father had sought help in Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City for his daughter who, said Kingsley, was “afflicted with a bad case of double hare lip and cleft palate.” No one could offer treatment, and surgeries on such patients had mostly failed. When queried earlier, Norman’s uncle had said he couldn’t help, but that if anyone could, it was his nephew.
In dealing with deformities, Kingsley was a relative novice, but relied on his childhood background of innovation and discovery. “The old self-reliance came to my support. I promised no results but would do all I could. Now, I had never seen a cleft palate; all I knew was what I read incidentally of such deformities, but never having seen one, I took no interest in the subject. Here was one of the worst cases ever seen, but I did not know that.”
The result was a historic moment in orthodontics. He made a quality mold of her mouth and worked towards possible solutions. Literature he found on the subject was useless—either too simple or too complex—so he broke new ground. In the end, the results were shown “privately to several of the foremost surgeons of New York.” He was soon touted in newspapers as a miracle worker.
“Extravagant claims were made for me. For example, it was stated that my patient, whose speech had been absolutely unintelligible, became ‘instantly’ … perfectly normal.” Norman’s stature in the world of dentistry and orthodontics was elevated by all the attention.
In 1863, at the American Dental Convention in Saratoga, fellow dentists marveled at Kingsley’s work and awarded him a gold medal for his achievements. In October of that same year, the Odontographic Society of Philadelphia did the same, citing his relief of immeasurable suffering.
In 1864–65, on a trip to Europe, he was feted at dinners night after night. Top surgeons, government officials, and an array of the continent’s medical and dental societies welcomed him. Typical was the comment in Paris by Auguste Nélaton, considered the world’s most distinguished surgeon: “I want to congratulate Dr. Kingsley on having succeeded where surgery has heretofore failed. It is a coincident fact that the first operation upon a cleft palate was done by a French dentist, but it has been left for an American dentist to discover a means whereby the speech of these unfortunate people can be benefitted, and they are no longer deprived of social intercourse.”
In Kingsley’s field, meaningful praise could come from no higher source. His worldwide fame led to 21 more trips to Europe during his career.
During his absence, the state legislature chartered the New York College of Dentistry. Upon his return to America in 1865, Kingsley became a founder of that institution and its professor of dental art and mechanism. He was also named first dean of the college, which is today part of New York University.
Kingley’s awards and successes are far too numerous to report here. He published many outstanding works and held a number of leadership positions in many societies. But in several “Who’s Who” books, the defining notation about his work is, “Invented, in 1859, an artificial palate for correcting speech of hare-lip people.” In doing so, he accomplished what no dentist or surgeon had been able to do, relieving the great suffering of untold thousands around the globe. Similar work being done today is derived from his groundbreaking efforts 150 years ago. After Norman’s death in 1913, famed orthodontist Dr. Calvin Case called him “the most ingenious man of his day.”
Kingsley’s great skill at sculpting near-perfect replicas of teeth was the result of hard work and a wonderful talent that brought him great fame in another arena: the world of art. He was widely known as an outstanding sculptor, producing high-quality works in marble, copper, brass, and bronze. He was famous as well for pyrography—creating artistic images on glass, leather, or wood surfaces by burning them with a controlled flame. He also produced engraved prints and oil paintings.
In New York City, Norman was a social businessman who hobnobbed with other wealthy men, belonged to the best clubs, and served on corporate boards. He also invested in many ventures, including railroads, bridges, mines, and steam towage on New York State’s canals.
But his greatest claim to fame is evidenced by the nickname bestowed upon him long ago: the “Father of Modern Orthodontia.” That same moniker has been applied to other outstanding individuals in the field, but he was the first to receive the informal honor and remains today a solid choice. One of the others was just three years old when Kingsley published the first-ever article on orthodontics. In 1880, he also published A Treatise on Oral Deformities, considered the first standard textbook on orthodontics.
In 1957, a jury of his peers offered this assessment in the American Journal of Orthodontics: “Kingsley has been authentically accredited as ‘The Father of Modern Orthodontics,’ as well as one of the most generally versatile dentists and professional men of his period. He was an accomplished dentist, orthodontist, cleft-palate therapist, dental orthopedist (in the creation of fracture splint principles which still carry his name), facial prosthetist, teacher, educator, leader, author, artist, sculptor, and inventor. Dentistry to him was an art, receiving the same consideration and talent that he devoted to his more purely cultural achievements.”
And as they say, that ain’t just lip service.
Photos: Norman Kingsley, circa 1900; Bust of Christ, a work of Kingsley’s