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Black Dental Medicine History

Robert Hathaway Purvis

Written by Laurel Graham, Head Librarian of the Leon Levy Dental Medicine Library:


“In the matter of rights,” he would often state, “there is just one race, and that is the human race.” [1]


A photograph of Robert Hathaway Purvis in his graduation cap and gown. The text underneath his photograph reads "Robert Purvis. Philadelphia, PA."

Robert Hathaway Purvis was the son of a Charles B. Purvis, one of the first university trained African-American physicians, and grandson of Robert Purvis (quoted above), one of Philadelphia’s most prominent abolitionists and  co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society.[2]His grandmother, Harriet Forten Purvis, was a well-known anti-slavery, women's rights advocate, and a prominent member of the Female Vigilant Society, a group which provided for escaped slaves. [3]

Robert H. Purvis graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in 1897. 

He entered that school in his senior year having spent first and second years at the Dental Department of the University of Pennsylvania. The Dental Department of the University of Pennsylvania (as PDM was known at the time)opened in April 1878.


While we cannot claim him as a graduate, he did attend Penn. And while history, as far as I have found, does not reveal such storied accomplishments as his forefathers and mothers, Robert Hathaway Purvis, dentist, who died in Manhattan at the age of sixty, very profession and life seem testament enough if not more so.

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