Thomas W. Evans


Thomas W. Evans

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania — 1823-1897

Practitioner, Inventor, Benefactor, Dentist to Royalty

Thomas W. Evans was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December 23, 1823, a descendant of a family of Welsh Quakers. He received a common school education and, at the age of fourteen, became an apprentice to a gold and silver-smith in Philadelphia whose business included also the manufacture of instruments used by dentists. This employment brought young Evans into contact with leading dentists of that period and created his desire to enter the profession of dentistry.

In that era, a person desiring to study dentistry was required only to serve an apprenticeship of two years with an established practitioner and upon certification by the dentist that the student was proficient in dentistry he was permitted to practice. In 1841, Evans became on apprentice student in the office of Doctor John DeHaven White, remained two years, and acquired the certification of proficiency and the right to practice.

He also attended lectures at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia during the college years of 1844-45, where his knowledge of surgery was certified. In later years, however, Doctor Evans was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery from the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery (1850) and from the Philadelphia College of Dental Surgery (1853); an honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine from Washington University in Baltimore (1853); and an honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Lafayette College.

Doctor Evans practiced a short time in Baltimore, Maryland, and later in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he established a reputation as an expert in the use of gold as a filling material in teeth. He presented a demonstration of his new technique at the annual exhibition of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and was awarded “first Premium” recognition for the merit of his work.

Doctor Evans arrived in Paris, twenty-four years of age, November 1847, and became associated with Doctor C. Starr Brewster, an American Dentist practicing there. Three years later he established an office for himself located at 15 rue de la Paix and entered upon a professional career, which was to continue for fifty years.

His arrival in Paris coincided with the end of the period of the Restoration and the inauguration on the Second Republic (1848-52) with Louis Napoléon, nephew of Napoléon I (Bonaparte), as Prince-President. The Second Empire (1852-70) was soon to follow when Louis Napoléon was crowned Emperor Napoléon III.

Doctor Evans’ initial introduction to the Prince-President of the second Republic came in 1849, when the Prince sent a message to Doctor Brewster that he desired him to come to the Elysée Palace as he had need for his services. Doctor Brewster, being ill at the time recommended that Doctor Evans, who was then associated with him make the professional call in his stead. Doctor Evans describes that important day in the following words: “He received me most kindly without the least intimation that he had expected to see someone else, so that I soon felt entirely at my ease. I found that a slight operation was necessary, which, when made gave him great relief. On my leaving, the Prince thanked me most cordially, commending me for having great ‘gentleness’ of my manner of operating and expressed the wish to see me the next day. I saw him again professionally and from that time to the day of his death, I visited him often, for the relations between us were now not entirely professional having soon become friendly and even confidential.” Thus, the ties of an enduring friendship were woven.

When the Prince became Emperor Napoléon III of the Second Empire in 1852, he officially appointed his friend, Doctor Evans Surgeon-Dentist to the Imperial Court, with equal status as the Physicians of the Court.

This relationship with the Imperial Court was the endure until the Franco-Prussian war, when at Sedan, the defeat of the Army of Napoléon III, and the Emperor a prisoner, brought about the fall of the Second Empire (1870). News of the disaster soon reached Paris. Mobs were driven to a frenzy of rebellion, the Senate was dissolved, and the city was in the hands of the revolutionists, who gathered in front of the Tuileries with shouts of “a bas I’Empire” and “Vive la Republique”.

The Empress Eugénie at home in the Palace, quickly realized her life was in danger by the mob already pushing against the gates. She fled from the Palace and escaped by a public cab accompanied by her friend Madame Lebreton who suggested they go to the American Embassy, the Empress replied, “No we will go to the home of Doctor Evans, he is an American and the one friend I can completely trust. I am sure he will not hesitate to render us every assistance we may require.”

There are few more dramatic events in history than the escape of the Empress Eugénie from the Tuileries, her instinctive turning in the hour of her greatest need to Doctor Evans as the one friend whom she could completely trust, and then, the hazardous trip by carriage from Paris to Deauville using a relay of both drivers and horses, passing successfully through frenzied mobs and guarded barricades, using both deception and bribery with masterly adroitness to shield the Empress from recognition, all of which Doctor Evans had meticulously planned and successfully executed.

During the Civil War in America, Doctor Evans, already highly esteemed by the Emperor, was sent as his personal emissary on a confidential diplomatic mission to Washington to determine the probable outcome of the war, because the Emperor was being urged to join England in recognizing the Confederacy. Doctor Evans conferred directly with President Lincoln, General Grant and other officials of the government and the army. He then personally toured the battlefields, where he received every indication and confidence that the war would soon end in final victory for the Union Army. He returned to Paris and informed that Emperor that the end of the war was not far away with victory expected for the North.

Doctor Evans said later he often heard the Emperor mention that he was well pleased with the service he had performed and more than satisfied that he had not acted precipitately during the early days of the war as he felt that the friendship with America was most important to France.

Notwithstanding Doctor Evans’ responsibilities to the Imperial French Court, and the other Courts of Europe, and his preoccupation with the various affairs of Court, he devoted assiduous attention to his practice. He successfully developed vulcanized rubber as a base plate material, conducted early experiments with “a contrivance in the shape of an articulator” and developed a treatment procedure for “regulating teeth” for which he was highly complimented. He introduced and successfully demonstrated to the medical and dental profession of Europe the use of nitrous oxide as a general anesthetic. He had an investigative interest in pathology and preserved many pathologic specimens.

Doctor Evans was the first American dentist to achieve an international reputation; he also was one of the first of his countrymen to wear the Cross of the Legion of Honor. At the time of the presentation, the Emperor opened a small case, removed the famous decoration and pinned it upon him saying, “We want you to go home a Knight”, and he added, “I hope your friends in America will understand how much you are appreciated by us.”

In addition to the Legion of Honor, Doctor Evans had conferred upon him Fifty-Six decorations of orders and honors buy various monarchs in Europe.

The provision of Doctor Evans’ will relating to his desire to have his fortune contribute to the advancement of his “beloved” profession were, “to devise and bequeath all the rest, residue and remainder of my estate unto the Thomas W. Evans Museum and Institute Society”, a corporation to receive and transfer property.

The duties resting upon the trustees of the corporation were specific, “to use the property situated at the comer of Spruce and Fortieth Streets in Philadelphia where is the property where my dear father and mother lived and died and where I myself was much a boy.”

“Said corporation shall erect sufficient and suitable buildings fireproof and burglar proof of artistic and refined beauty to be called, “The Thomas W. Evans Museum and Dental Institute.” The property designated in the will of Doctor Evans was situated near the western boundary of the University of Pennsylvania and is now within the campus of the University.

The Academy is privileged and honored to induct Dr. Thomas W. Evans “an esteemed benefactor of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine” into the Pierre Fauchard Academy International Hall of Fame of Dentistry.