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ADAMS, JOHN GENNINGS CURTIS, farmer, dentist, and reformer; b. 16 March 1839 in Adamsville (Acton), Upper Canada, son of the Reverend Ezra Adams and Amy Edmonds (Edmunds), widow of John Gennings Curtis; m. 18 Dec. 1861 Sarah Ann Fawcett (d. 1896) in Drayton, Upper Canada, and they had four sons and five daughters; d. 21 May 1922 in Burlington, Ont., and was buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto.

As a youth, John G. C. Adams farmed on the family homestead near Drayton. He drifted away in 1869 and the following year, at age 31, he moved to Toronto with his wife and children to study dentistry under his half-brother William Case Adams. His diary of 1871–73, kept during his indentureship, is a revealing record of his evangelical bent and dialogue with God, his visits to the sick and the poor, and his unswerving faith that Providence would send work his way (usually fillings) to pay for the next day’s food and fuel. In 1872 he began performing free “Dental Hospital work” among the children of poor families. After receiving his lds from the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario in 1874, he opened his own practice, which he moved in the 1880s to the corner of Elm and Yonge streets, in the core of the city.

Adams’s Methodist and charitable convictions infused his dentistry to an extent that many deemed fanatical. He saw the dental care of children as a divine mission, and began acting aggressively on this belief in the 1890s. He was appalled by the wretched condition of children’s teeth, the prevalence of related disease and deformity, and the degree of parental misunderstanding of dental development and oral hygiene. Examinations made by Adams and his son Dr Ezra Herbert Adams at Victoria Street School in 1893–94 revealed serious neglect in a stunning 98 per cent of the students.

At a time when the problem was a matter of no professional concern, Adams’s efforts to help launch a dental infirmary for the poor in 1893 and his paper to the Ontario Dental Society in 1895, on the care of children’s teeth, had little impact. Nonetheless, with the support of the Toronto Dental Society and the Toronto Trades and Labor Council, he travelled widely the following year to deliver his message, addressing such bodies as the Provincial Board of Health, the National Council of Women of Canada, its Local Council in Hamilton, and the Michigan State Dental Association. As well, he published and distributed School-children’s teeth: their universally unhealthy and neglected condition: the only practical remedy: dental public school inspection and hospitals for the poor (Toronto, 1896).

Adams wrote there that to get needy children to his free clinic, which was next to his office, he had hired people to “hunt” them up. In 1896 he moved to expand his work by buying the Temperance Coffee House Association building on Elm at Teraulay Street. The following year he opened Christ’s Mission Dental Hospital there, a free clinic combined with a mission hall, a coffee room, and an employment bureau. In April 1899 the RCDS agreed to his request that dental students be allowed to continue “to operate gratuitously in charitable institutions under the direction of a member.” A month later, unable to pay back-taxes of $200, Adams was forced to close the mission hospital. City council refused an exemption on the grounds of charitable function.

Undaunted – Adams styled himself a “dental missionary” – he rechanneled his energy, lobbying municipal health and school officials for province-wide dental inspection and treatment. His attacks on physicians who mishandled tooth-related illness and his sweeping claims, as in his statement in 1901 to Premier George William Ross* that “there are not less than one million permanent teeth going to destruction in the mouths of the school children of Ontario,” drew opposition as well as support. Undoubtedly Adams was pleased with the work of George K. Thomson and other dentists in Nova Scotia, where school inspections were instituted in 1908, the earliest in Canada. Adams’s views, often expressed in such sympathetic forums as the Dominion Dental Journal (Toronto) and Oral Health (Toronto), gained momentum as they merged with the developing public health movement in Ontario. The Toronto Board of Education led the way in 1911 when it initiated inspections; two years later, in the spirit of Adams’s hospital, the city’s health department opened a dental clinic for the poor, the first free public clinic in Canada. (In the United States an experimental clinic had been set up in 1901 in Rochester, N.Y.)

Adams’s public involvement was not limited to preventive dentistry. He promoted window gardening as an element of civic pride. A Reformer in politics, he belonged to the Sons of Temperance, the Good Templars, the Ancient Order United Workmen, and the Select Knights of Canada, and was a steward and trustee of St Paul’s Methodist Church in the Yorkville area of Toronto, where he had lived since the 1870s. His large family shared his religious and professional devotions. All of his sons followed him into dentistry; William Fawcett, who also earned degrees in medicine and divinity, spent many years in China as a medical missionary.

Adams retired in 1912 and he died in 1922. A visionary philanthropist, he had sparked an important movement. By the end of the 1920s most large municipalities across Canada had some form of dental inspection for children. Few dentists leave such a legacy.

Anne Carlyle Dale

[Materials concerning the Adams family, including copies of early letters to John Gennings Curtis Adams and his diary for 1871–73, were graciously provided by Joyce Pettigrew of Otterville, Ont., a great-granddaughter of the subject.  a.c.d.]

A reprint of Adams’s treatise, School-children’s teeth: their universally unhealthy and neglected condition, appeared in Toronto in 1912. There were also apparently one or more pamphlets based on the larger work, as well as two articles published under the same title in the Dental Register (Cincinnati, Ohio), 50 (1896): 472–87 and the Dominion Dental Journal (Toronto), 24 (1912): 168–71, 209–12. Adams’s writings on the subject also include “Systematic care of school children’s teeth,” Dominion Dental Journal, 12 (1900): 317–19.

AO, RG 22-305, no.12267; RG 80-8-0-198, no.25414; 871, no.14961; RG 80-27-2, 79: 71. Univ. of Toronto, Faculty of Dentistry Library, Dental Museum, “Adams family record” (typescript notes); framed copy of J. G. [C.] Adams, “Petition to the Honorable the Legislature of Ontario in session” (n.d.); J. J. Kelso, notice announcing meeting to establish a “Dental Infirmary, for the benefit of the poor, and principally for children,” Toronto, 21 Sept. 1893; “Petition to the members of the School Board” (n.d.). Toronto Daily Star, 22–23 May 1922. G. M. Adam, Toronto, old and new: a memorial volume . . . (Toronto, 1891; repr. 1972), 112–13. T. L. Adams, A dentist and a gentleman: gender and the rise of dentistry in Ontario (Toronto, 2000). J. W. Bruce, “President’s address,” Dominion Dental Journal, 21 (1909): 246–60. J. J. Cassidy and P. H. Bryce, “Report of the committee on school hygiene on dental inspection,” Dominion Dental Journal, 8 (1896): 177–85. Commemorative biographical record of the county of York. . (Toronto, 1907). Dental Practice (Toronto), 10 (1911): 218–20. Directory, Toronto, 1871–1915. Dominion Dental Journal, 9 (1897): 266–68, 300; 34 (1922): 237–38, 245–46. D. W. Gullett, A history of dentistry in Canada (Toronto, 1971). Oral Health (Toronto), 3 (1913): 115–16. Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario, Report of the proc. of the annual meeting of the board of directors (Toronto), 1898: 7, 20. Wallace Seccombe, “J. G. Adams, dentist and philanthropist,” Oral Health, 12 (1922): 265. J. W. Shosenberg, The rise of the Ontario Dental Association: 125 years of organized dentistry (Toronto, 1992), 81–91. G. K. Thomson, “The dental education of the public and school children,” Dominion Dental Journal, 20 (1908): 255–74. “Toronto’s municipal dental clinic,” Oral Health, 3: 113–14. A. E. Webster, “Dental inspection of two schools in Toronto,” Dominion Dental Journal, 22 (1910): 600–4.

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Anne Carlyle Dale, “ADAMS, JOHN GENNINGS CURTIS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 15, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/adams_john_gennings_curtis_15E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/adams_john_gennings_curtis_15E.html
Author of Article:   Anne Carlyle Dale
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   April 15, 2024