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Sindecuse Museum

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins

1890 U-M College of Dentistry graduate photo composite

U-M College of Dentistry 1890 graduationg class photo composite. Ida Gray Nelson Rollins'  is in the fourth row, third from the left. From the collection of the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry, SMD 292.1890.

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins graduation photo, 1890

Ida Gray Nelson (Rollins)
(ca. 1866-1953)
DDS 1890 University of Michigan College of Dentistry

First African-American Woman Dentist

Ida Gray worked in the dental office of Jonathan Taft while attending a segregated public high school in Cincinnati, Ohio. Taft, dean at the University of Michigan’s dental school, was a vital early supporter of women dentists and encouraged her to apply to the University of Michigan.

The three years’ experience in Taft’s dental office helped her pass the entrance exam. She earned exemplary marks in dental school. Ida Gray is pictured above in her 1890 graduation photo. Image from the collection of the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry, University of Michigan SMD 292.1890.

First African-American Woman Dentist in Chicago

While working in Cincinnati, Ida Gray married James S. Nelson. They moved to Chicago where she practiced in an African-American neighborhood. Her later clientele included all races.

Nelson was a mentor and role model for her patients. One patient, Olive M. Henderson, became the second African-American dentist in Chicago. After Nelson’s husband died in 1926, she retired in 1928 and married William Rollins the following year.

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins portrait

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins. Image courtesy of the Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations. Click to view larger.

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins' student record from her first year at the University of Michigan, 1887.

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins' student record from her first year at the University of Michigan, 1887. Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. Click to view larger.