HOW WELL I remember Dr. Evans, who was our family dentist. He had a black beard. Many tales of his “successes” were whispered, perhaps fostered by himself—be that as it may, he was certainly attracted by beauty … It seemed somehow symbolic of the fashionable Second Empire that for the first time in history a dentist had succeeded in achieving an establishment comparable to [that of] a prince.—Baroness Agnes de Stoeckl,When Men Had Time.
IT SOMETIMES HAPPENS when the crowned heads of Europe wish to communicate with one another without any responsibility they send for Evans to fix their teeth. As you are not likely to send so far for a dentist, I need only add that the messages of this sort, which he bears, are always communicated to him by word of mouth and in the presence of no witnesses.—Letter from John Bigelow, American Consul-General in Paris, to William Seward, U.S. Secretary of State, November 21, 1862.
Some professions, by their very nature, suggest glamour, intrigue, adventure. Dentistry, with all due respect, is not one of them. Which makes the achievements of Dr. Thomas Evans—the West Philadelphia native who funded the dental institute and museum that bears his name (and which merged, after his death, with Penn’s School of Dentistry)—all the more remarkable.
|Portrait of the dentist as a young man.|
Consider: Having moved from Pennsylvania to Paris in 1847 without even speaking French, he became the dentist of choice and the trusted friend of a glittering array of kings, princes, empresses, grand duchesses, czars, sultans and other potentates. (A visit from Evans, wrote Baroness de Stoeckl, was a “profound honour,” since he chose his patients “as a King chooses his Ministers.”) He became the court-appointed surgeon-dentist and confidant of the Emperor Napoleon III and his wife, the Empress Eugénie, and he probably saved the latter’s life at the fall of the Second Empire when he helped her escape from the Parisian mob to England. (Evans also helped save the life of Germany’s Crown Prince Frederick long enough for him to reign for 99 days as Emperor Frederick III by fashioning a silver tracheotomy cannula for the prince’s cancerous throat, allowing him to breathe.)
Although he spent most of his life in France, and lived in many ways like a Frenchman—Le Gaulois opined that Evans “had a thoroughly Parisian look about him and could inspire our instinctive friendship”—he remained a loyal American citizen. He was largely responsible for convincing Napoleon III not to recognize the Confederacy, thus keeping France firmly on the sidelines of the American Civil War. “I have a feeling that in many ways he saw himself as a successor to Benjamin Franklin, serving as an American in Paris,” says Dr. D. Walter Cohen D’50, former dean of the dental school. “He really was a Renaissance person.” And, like Franklin, he valued both the useful and the ornamental.
Evans was, unquestionably, a highly skilled and innovative dentist—in addition to his deft touch with gold-foil fillings, he was the first to use vulcanite rubber as a base for dentures (turning down a franchise offered him by Charles Goodyear); he also introduced nitrous oxide as an anesthetic to Europe. In a time when teeth were a source of unalloyed misery—and in a country where the dental arts were the province of quacks—his talents were bankable. But the fact that so many important men and women trusted him was due to his reassuring chair-side manner, his engaging conversation—and his discretion. He once described himself as “my patients’ father confessor,” and he liked to say that: “Ears hear, but they as mouth must often close.”
Highly sensitive to human suffering, he introduced a light, ventilated, American-style ambulance and field hospital to the French, which saved many lives during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. (“It is the dream of every French soldier, if he is wounded, to be taken to this ambulance,” wrote Henry Labouchere, Paris correspondent for the London Daily News.) For such contributions he was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor, the first American to enter the ranks of that organization.
Along the way, he became the publisher of the American Register, an English-language newspaper in Paris; organized the American Charitable Association of Paris to aid indigent American citizens; helped found the first American community church in Paris; and gave 100,000 francs to the Lafayette Home for young American women who came to Paris to study art.
As the Second Empire gave way to the Third Republic, “Handsome Tom” took on a beautiful mistress, Méry Laurent, who inspired so many artists and writers—including Edouard Manet and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé—that one wag appreciatively dubbed her “toute la lyre,” the lyre in question being that of Orpheus. While acquiring mistresses may not rank among life’s loftiest achievements, this one did indirectly lead to an art collection that Le Figaro hyperbolically described as “one of the most important and best collections of paintings which exists.” It included several by Manet himself, three of which would resurface in the dental school’s storage warehouse nearly 80 years after Evans’ death—thus providing the foundation of the school’s current endowment.
A few of the nearly 200 medals, ribbons and other gaudy baubles he received from his royal clients still hang in a glass case at the entrance to the dental-school library. The carriage that Evans used to smuggle Eugénie out of Paris has been rescued from a shed at the New Bolton Center by Dr. James F. Galbally Jr. GD’74, associate dean of the dental school, and taken to the Blérancourt Museum near Paris as a symbol of Franco-American friendship. The Manets are hanging in museums in Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Evans’ letters and papers are in the Department of Special Collections in Van Pelt Library and the dental-school library. The jewels—diamond necklaces, ruby-studded snuffboxes, brooches and rings and stickpins, inventoried at more than $1 million after his death—are in museums and private hands. Other paintings and gifts from royal patients will again be on display when the school’s new Schattner Center opens in 2001. By such remains can we identify the man.
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