Thomas W. Evans and Royalty
March 23, 2020 - July 5, 2020
“I determined at an early age to make a high reputation, to gain celebrity, position, and fortune,” Philadelphia-born Thomas Wiltberger Evans wrote his parents from Paris. There, his biographer Gerald Carson writes, he had moved with his wife Agnes late in 1847, with “a nest egg of five hundred dollars,” knowing “nothing of France or of Paris,” and having “no understanding of the French language.”
His apparent lack of preparation may seem daunting. Evans did not find it so. If France were the place where dental practice was most advanced, as Evans and his compeers thought, Evans had confidence in his own background, training, and experience. Apprenticed both as a goldsmith and as a dentist, he had studied medicine, although without earning a medical doctor’s degree, and received a certificate from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. (No formal dental schools then existed in Philadelphia. One opened in Baltimore while Evans studied privately with Philadelphia dentist Dr. John de Haven White.) While practicing in Baltimore and Lancaster, his “examples of orification” (“a series of gold contour-filling operations,” according to Carson) received honors at a Franklin Institute arts and manufacture exhibition. And he knew how to apply himself. As arranged, he joined the Paris practice of South Carolinian Dr. Cyrus Starr Brewster, working simultaneously to learn French. By 1850, after two years with Brewster, Evans opened his own practice at a new address.
Brewster’s patients had included King of the French Louis-Philippe (“King of the French”; not “King of France”) and his court. Whatever impact the 1848 revolution had on these Americans during the Evanses’ first year in France, for Louis-Philippe its result was exile to England, his whiskers shaved, wearing a toupee, and disguised as plain “Mr. Smith.” Even before his ignominious exile, Louis-Philippe—famously caricatured by Daumier as “La poire”— had been no model monarch but “a sovereign who walked unattended in the streets, clad in a sober bourgeois suit and carrying a furled umbrella, and who shook hands with his subjects.” His eventual successor, Louis-Napoléon, Napoleon’s nephew, did not represent “sober bourgeois” values. He quickly became President of the Second French Republic (1850-1852) and, in a subsequent coup, Emperor Napoleon III (1852-1870). Both he and his wife, Eugénie, sensed better than Louis-Philippe the value of appearance and the appurtenances of royalty.
Evans also liked the appurtenances of royalty. Consorting with royalty raised him, his practice, and the profession of dentistry to the status he sought. His first royal patient, Carson writes, came in 1850: Maximilian II, King of Bavaria (“Bavaria” because the still separate German states had not yet combined as Germany). So successful was Evans that Maximilian made him a Knight of the Order of St. Michael of Bavaria. Also in 1850, Brewster off visiting the United States, Evans responded to an emergency call from the Élysée Palace: Louis-Napoleon’s lower right molar was causing him great pain. As successful as he had with Maximilian, Evans was from then on Louis-Napoleon’s—Napoleon III’s—dentist. Their relations became not only professional but also social. Evans would sometimes see Louis-Napoleon more than once a week.
Other royals followed in Maximilian’s and Louis-Napoleon’s wake. His papers preserve many examples of Evans’s various relations with European royalty. This small exhibition displays only a few. Unless otherwise noted, all objects come from Ms. Coll. 115, Thomas W. Evans Papers, ca. 1850-1913, housed in the Kislak Center, Penn Libraries.
Curated by Daniel Traister.