Retired University of Nebraska professor keeps dental history alive

Heritage center unveils dental gallery named for Stanton D. Harn, Ph.D.

Window into the past: The Stanton D. Harn, Ph.D., Dental Gallery in the Wigton Heritage Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center showcases a dental office from the 1870s-1880s. Photo courtesy of Kent Sievers, University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Dr. Harn

For more than 40 years, retired dental anatomy professor Stanton D. Harn, Ph.D., has curated dental antiques for the dental museum at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Dentistry, and some of the items are now on permanent display in a gallery named for him at the university's new Wigton Heritage Center.

The Stanton D. Harn, Ph.D., Dental Gallery features a dental office from the 1870s-1880s, as well as information about the dental college and its museum. A ribbon cutting for the Wigton Heritage Center took place in June in Omaha, Nebraska.

Dr. Harn's interest in history led him to establish the UNMC College of Dentistry Dental Museum in the 1970s at a time when courses focusing on dental history were largely eliminated from dental school curricula. Now a professor emeritus and the curator of the museum and gallery, he taught anatomy at the college for 45 years.

"I started the dental museum in 1977 because of my appreciation of history and my love of antiques," he said. "Dental schools in general removed dental history courses from their curricula in the early 1970s, so I thought that through establishing a dental museum, we could teach some of that history visually."

The museum at the Lincoln, Nebraska, dental school features thousands of dental items, from cabinets and chairs to toothbrushes and surgical instruments. All the items in the collection are owned by the college, and they have been donated directly or purchased with money donated by alumni and friends of the college and university.

It is impossible to showcase the entire collection because of limited space, so the museum's two permanent displays include a window display showing five turn-of-the-20th-century dental cabinets and a series of seven display cabinets showing historical toothbrushes, toothpastes, tooth powder containers, articulators, gas burners, rubber dam instruments, bur blocks, porcelain and plastic teeth, and shade guides.

The rest of the collection is taken out for two weeks each year during the dental school’s homecoming and displayed in hallways and a remodeled laboratory.

When deciding what to permanently feature in the new dental gallery at the Wigton Heritage Center, Dr. Harn wanted it to be different from other exhibits.

"The dental gallery represents the dental office time period of the 1870s-1880s," he said. "This time period was picked because I wanted an earlier office display than most exhibits show. When one travels around the U.S., the most common dental office display is from the 1900s."

Dr. Harn worked with Emily McElroy, dean of the McGoogan Health Sciences Library at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, to develop the dental gallery, and he occasionally gives tours. Ms. McElroy oversees the entire Wigton Heritage Center.

"We were obviously very excited to have the dental college included," Dr. Harn said. "The dental college is a college of UNMC, but we are different from most UNMC colleges in that we are located 50 miles away in Lincoln. Having the gallery named after me was wonderful and a great honor."

The Wigton Heritage Center includes exhibits that pertain to the history of the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the health professions in Nebraska.

"As we developed the exhibits for the Wigton Heritage Center, we knew the largest and most permanent exhibit of the center would be dedicated to the college of dentistry's dental collection," Ms. McElroy said. "It provides visitors with a unique view of how dentistry has changed over the years. It is also important for campus and its guests to see an exhibit featuring one of our leading health professions on display. We worked closely with Dr. Harn to match his vision for the display with the design of the exhibit, from its construction to installation. The exhibit is the most popular exhibit based on our observations of traffic and feedback from tours."

Dr. Harn said he wants visitors to the gallery and museum to gain new appreciations for various aspects of dentistry.

"I hope visitors to both exhibits will come away appreciating the advancements in dentistry, appreciating the beauty of the antiques of dentistry and appreciating the history of dentistry," he said.

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