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Selections from the Thomas Evans Collection

Thomas Wiltberger Evans
Thomas Wiltberger Evans

On exhibit May 5, 2016 - July 8, 2016

Among the many collections housed in the Kislak Center, one will find Thomas W. Evans’ (1823 – 1897) collection of rare works on the history of dentistry, his collection of Protestant Bibles, and his surviving personal papers. These materials were included in Evans’ bequest to the University of Pennsylvania and were to be housed in Evans’ envisioned Dental Institute and Museum, which opened in 1915.

From the mid-twentieth century to the present the Penn Dental School has evolved and expanded its original location on the corner of Spruce and 40th Streets, becoming a modern teaching, research, and clinical facility. In the 1950s the Dental School was in search of a home for the contents of the Evans Dental Museum. Although the Penn Libraries was considered to be a possible location for the Evans collection of books and manuscripts, the plan was jettisoned, and the objects were carefully packed and stored. The books and manuscripts remained in the Dental Library. By 1990, the Dean of the Dental School had negotiated the transfer of Evans’ manuscripts and his rare books to the Penn Libraries where they reside today.

At the time of his death in 1933, Edward Cameron Kirk (1856 – 1933), the Dental School’s third Dean, donated three thousand volumes to the Dental Library. Nested within Kirk’s gift were one hundred and sixty-seven volumes acquired by Evans while he practiced dentistry in Paris from 1847 until his death in 1897. Based on an examination of the books in the Evans Dental Collection, his surviving papers, and biographical information, it is difficult to picture Evans as an antiquarian and rare book collector. Tantalizingly, Evans records that when he was a dental apprentice in Philadelphia in the 1840s, he bought four books to guide him in his studies. No extant traces survive beyond this reference to his book collection.

Despite the lack of evidence of Evans purchasing rare books, the question remains––was he inspired to acquire early printed works on the history of dentistry as part of his vision for the Dental Institute and Museum he conceived late in his life? Among the important books in the Evans Dental Collection are the first printed book on dentistry, the anonymous German Artzney Buchlein wider allerlei Kranckeyten vnd Gebrechen der Tzeen (1520) and Urbain Hémard’s Recherche de la Vraye Anathomie des Dents (1582), the first French book published about teeth. These are just two examples of the many rare works in the Evans collection, which ranges in date from the early-sixteenth to the late-nineteenth centuries.

As a whole, the collection documents the history of dentistry as it sheds its lowly unregulated status––treatment relegated to barbers and superstition––to its full acceptance by the medical profession as a separate branch of medicine at the turn of the twentieth century. The books on display in the current exhibit focus on the early modern period.

During his humble beginnings in Philadelphia, Evans dreamt of success. His ambitions, fueled by talent and tact, were ultimately fulfilled beyond his dreams in Paris. The Penn Libraries is privileged to house the printed books and manuscripts belonging to Thomas W. Evans which document his remarkable private and professional career in service to the courts of France and Europe and his beloved dental profession.

Installation views of Selections from the Thomas Evans Collection exhibition

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