Dr. Helen Roach Foley, Glens Falls’ First Woman Dentist

Dr. Helen Roach Foley (August 14, 1886–1970), ca. 1911

When that toothache gets to be too much, you call your dentist and, if you live in New York State, there’s at least a forty percent chance that your dentist is a woman. This was not always true as the dental field, as well as most of the medical field other than nursing, was mostly a male domain. In this article we will look at how that change occurred and about the first woman dentist in Glens Falls.

A sixteenth-century copper engraving by Lucas Van Leyden shows a traveling dentist working on a patient and there is a woman standing in back of the patient who could be the dentist’s assistant. In 1740, a French woman, Madeline Francoise Calais, was licensed to practice dentistry by the Surgical Society of Paris. In 1814, Josephine Serre, was the first woman in Europe to receive a dental degree which she earned at the University of Tartu in Estonia.

In the State of Connecticut, 17-year-old Emeline Roberts married a dentist by the name of Dr. Daniel Jones. She became interested in his work and soon was practicing dental procedures using his patients’ extracted teeth. He must have been impressed by her work because by 1855 she was working on patients as his assistant and thus becoming the first woman in this country to practice dentistry.

Lucy Hobbs Taylor, who was born in Constable, New York, became the first woman to graduate from college with a dental degree. She attended Ohio Dental College in 1866, just after the American Civil War.

For Glens Falls, the first woman dentist appeared in 1906. Much of the information about her came from the archives of the Chapman Museum in the form of two letters. One from her niece, Catherine A. Bishop, to the Post-Star in 1979 and one from her daughter, Anne C. Foley, to the curator of the Chapman in 1984. Her name was Helen Margaret Roach Foley.

Helen Margaret Roach was born in Glens Falls on August 14, 1886, to William Roach and his wife, Katherine Dooley. Helen had one sister, Madaline, later Mrs. Arthur W. Bishop. Her father held several jobs before running a taxi service in Glens Falls for many years. Roach attended both St. Mary’s Academy and Glens Falls High School, but left after her junior year to enroll in dental school in 1903. This was it was last year that you could attend dental school without first earning a four-year college degree. She was accepted into the College of Oral and Dental Surgery, now part of Columbia University, where she graduated in 1906 at the age of 20.

She returned to Glens Falls and obtained employment with Dr. Thomas Foulds as his dental assistant. She received her license in 1907 and stayed in practice with Dr. Foulds until May of 1909. Dr. Foulds moved his practice and Dr. Roach took over the space at 37 Maple Street. She remained at this location until moving her office to the Glens Falls Insurance Company building in 1915. During WWI, several local dentists, including Dr. Roach, provided free dental care to the young men who were drafted into the armed services.

In April of 1917, Dr. Roach married James D. Foley and gave up her dental practice which was taken over by Dr. Edward P. Burns. She never went back to dentistry even though her colleagues tried to get her to take a refresher course and return to practice during World War Two. She declined to do so saying she did not think she could stand to be on her feet for the long hours needed and she had no experience doing dentistry sitting as some dentists were then doing.

Helen Margaret Roach Dentist’s Certificate of Registration, 1908

Dr. Roach and her husband James had one daughter, Anne. During her life, she was an active member of St. Mary’s Parish in Glens Falls and belonged to the Catholic Daughters of America, the Woman’s Civic Club, and the Red Cross. Her daughter recalls her talking about one of her patients, Mrs. Katrina Trask, who with her husband, Spencer, founded Yaddo, the artists retreat in Saratoga.

James started his career as a bookkeeper for several years before joining his brother as proprietors of the Foley Brothers Drug Store on Glen Street in Glens Falls. He served as the Commissioner of Welfare for the City of Glens Falls for several years. James died in 1979.

Dr. Helen Roach Foley died in 1970 at age 83 and her husband died in 1979. Their daughter Anne died in 2005.

NOTE: The information used in this article was from various dental history websites and the archives at the Chapman Museum in Glens Falls.

Contributed by: Bob Bayle

An abridged version of this post appears in the February issue of North Country Neighbors