Joseph B. Harris was born on June 8, 1920 in Richmond,
Virginia. When Dr. Harris was nine years old, his father,
Joseph Brown Harris died, leaving his mother to raise
him and his six siblings alone. During his childhood,
his mother stressed the importance of education. This
early influence fostered in him a desire to obtain a professional
degree. After graduating from high school in 1943, he
went into the Army and served on both the European and
Asian-Pacific fronts during World War II. Following his
January discharge, Dr. Harris entered Virginia Union University
in 1946 and graduated in June, 1949 with a B.S. in Chemistry,
with high honors. He then entered the Howard University
Dental School and graduated in 1953. Dr. Harris declined
an invitation made by the dean of Howard University's
Dental School to stay and teach there.
During the latter part of 1953, Dr. Harris set up a private practice at
12th and Collingwood Streets in Detroit. His practice included black and white
patients who lived in the area. In 1956, Dr. Harris became affiliated with Burton Mercy
Hospital. He provided dental care to patients hospitalized at Burton Mercy for a number of
years. Because of a need for a larger facility, Dr. Harris moved his private practice in
September, 1970 to a location on West Grand Boulevard.
Harris' professional affiliations have included
membership in the National Dental Association,
Wolverine Dental Association, and American Dental
Association. He has written an article entitled,
"Michigan's Black Dental Heritage,"
that appeared in the January, 1992 issue of the
Journal of the Michigan Dental Association. Dr.
Harris continues to practice at his office on
West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, Michigan.
Harris gives some insight into the use of alternative
and home remedies for dental care by some Detroit residents,
as well as some of the folklore behind such uses.
Do you remember if many of your patients in the 1950s
were seeking help for their dental problems with people
who weren't trained dentists? If they were using home
remedies, or if they were going to see the pharmacist
instead of the dentist, or buying patented medicines
or anything like that?
great deal of that went on. There was a product out
there, I think it was called Oragel or something like
that, that when they had a toothache they would put
it on the tooth to try to ease the pain until they [were]
financially able to do something about it. It did more
harm than it did good. It'd burn up the soft tissue
and there was so much heat to it that they didn't know
whether it was hurting or not.
thing you're talking about, trying to circumvent the
dentist, there was a group, well not a group, but some
patients who would go to dental technicians to try to
get their teeth made. I'm talking about dentures. They
felt that the technician worked for the dentist, so
they should be able to know how to make the teeth at
a much more reasonable price than the dentist would.
But, that's the worst thing in the world to do, to have
a technician to make your dentures because a technician
worked under the supervision of a dentist and worked
by a prescription. He has no knowledge of the certain
anatomical features of the head and neck and that type
of thing, because you could cause permanent damage by
getting a denture made by a technician circumventing,
trying to circumvent the dentist. So, any individual
caught doing that, at that time, was prosecuted.
The technicians were prosecuted?
prosecuted, if it was caught at that time.
How about folk remedies?
Yes, well, folk remedies were used. But, one of the
big things in the 50s that was used, they went by,
was having the teeth removed by the sign. Have you ever
heard of that?
sign is right. Now, let me see, [how I can] explain
that. In fact, I had an individual in the office a couple
of weeks ago that, evidently from the old school, was
going by the sign. Now, I don't know where they find
this sign, but I think it has something to do with the
moon. And they only will let you pull their teeth when
the sign [is] not in the head, see. Some of them would
come in and say, "Doctor, where's the sign? Is the sign
right?" I said, "[Is] the tooth hurting you?" They'd
say, "Yes." "Well," I'd say, "the sign is right." But,
you can think of it in some sort of a way as a home
remedy, some of the things that they would want to do.
But, you have very little of that now.