A Dentistry Date with Kate
Ten years after Katharine Hepburn’s death, a remembrance of the woman who was both a talented actress and, unexpectedly, a dental educator
Donaldson provided us with a valuable scholarly overview of the use of gold in dentistry.1 Reporting on archeological evidence, he traced back the use of gold in the mouth about 2,500 years. Gold has been used as wire, foil fillings, “lost-wax” castings for crowns, inlays, onlays, crown and bridge abutments, denture bases, and for various orthodontic applications. Donovan and colleagues completed a “retrospective clinical evaluation of 1,314 cast gold restorations in service from 1 to 52 years” and concluded, “It appears that properly fabricated cast gold inlays, onlays, partial veneer crowns, and full veneer crowns can provide extremely predictable, long-term restorative service.”2
In the late 1980s, I sought to picture some examples of gold dental restorations as part of a children’s dentistry educational book I was preparing.3 Being a pediatric dentistry specialist, I had no such images of my own patients, so I asked renowned dental materials expert Dr. Ralph W. Phillips, if he could help me out. Dr. Phillips gave me what he called “a copy of a copy” of a 35-mm color slide transparency of Katharine Hepburn’s maxillary teeth, some of which had been repaired with gold castings and others with gold foil (Figure 1). He used that image in his lectures to demonstrate the effectiveness and potential longevity of well-rendered precision cast gold work and gold foil tooth repair. Dr. Phillips couldn’t recall who had taken the photograph, but believed he had acquired the slide from Los Angeles dentist Dr. Charles Pincus. He also noted that at least some of Ms. Hepburn’s treatment was in the care of the great researcher, teacher, and dental clinician Dr. George Hollenback.4,5
When I asked Dr. Phillips when Katharine Hepburn’s color slide was recorded and when the dentistry had been done, he told me that it was probably in the 1950s, he wasn’t exactly sure. He then jokingly said, “Why don’t you ask the patient?” So I did.
On January 7, 1989, I wrote Ms. Hepburn a note, telling her of my admiration for her and Dr. Hollenback and of my interest in the history of dentistry. I sent the note in care of the postmaster in New York City, because I was unable to find her address. I received a response within 10 days (Figure 2). The letter was surprising in how Ms. Hepburn detailed Howard Hughes’s airplane crash–related dental injuries (which paled in comparison to all his other injuries),6 his treatment by Dr. Hollenback, and their professional relationships with Dr. Lawrence Chaffin.
The biggest surprise of all, however, was that Ms. Hepburn included both her New York and Connecticut phone numbers at the end of her letter. I’m not sure why I did not jump at the obvious invitation to make a phone call; perhaps I was nervous, star struck, or maybe just incredulous that she had responded with her phone numbers. Regardless, I wrote another short note, asking if she would consider a brief meeting, at which time I might record some photographs of her gold work. Soon after, I received another note that read, “My number is 212-755-xxxx – Monday to Friday” (Figure 3). Ms. Hepburn really was requesting a phone call!
When I called the New York number, she answered personally, and I identified myself. She thanked me for my interest in her work and that of Dr. Hollenback. She sounded intrigued about the specialty of pediatric dentistry and emphasized how “important it is that children learn about such things.” I described my book project to her and how I was greatly influenced by Dr. Benjamin Spock’s 1946 masterpiece, Baby and Child Care, which had been published in multiple editions over the decades. I was aspiring to create a dentistry picture book in a like spirit that would educate children, parents, pediatricians, and anyone else interested in all aspects of pediatric oral health care. She was delighted to learn that Dr. Spock, her fellow Connecticuter, also had interest in my project and had offered to write a foreword for the book. After answering her questions about children’s dentistry and the book project, I asked if she would consider permitting me to visit her to photograph her gold restorations. I told her that I’d like to use a few images of gold work in my book, with the intention of showing off and lauding well-done dental craftsmanship that had lasted for decades, and one of her photographs would be included.
Ms. Hepburn told me that she would be pleased to help me, but that I would not be able to photograph her gold fillings. “They are way back in my mouth, and you can’t get a camera back there,” she said. I told her about how dental photography mirrors are used, and how the camera has a lens-mounted flash for proper lighting. Ms. Hepburn ended our phone call with a request to call her the following Monday.
When I phoned her as instructed, she asked if I could come the next day at 11:00 AM. My date with Kate was confirmed. When I told my wife Deborah about my Tuesday plans, she pointed out that I would need someone to retract her cheeks. Deb also had made a date with Kate.
Meeting a Legend
The next day, we arrived on time and were ushered into the living room by Phyllis, Ms. Hepburn’s assistant. After introductions, we chatted about dentistry, especially children’s dentistry, and how Ms. Hepburn’s father had been a physician in Connecticut. She then described how much respect and admiration that she and Howard Hughes had for Dr. Hollenback, and how Hughes had financed a research lab for his dentist friend. She told me that some of her dentistry had been done by other dentists, and she could not remember who exactly had done what treatment, but she knew that Dr. Hollenback had restored her “two front ones” (maxillary lateral incisors, mesio-lingual Class III) with gold foil. She was not sure if he had done any of the gold inlays or onlays, but thought he had. She even mentioned that some treatment had been performed in Australia. When I asked her when the gold work had been done, she pondered and said, “Let’s see, Spence died in ‘67…probably in the mid-to-late 50s.” Her gold restorations were somewhere between 30 and 35 years old. She then asked how I intended to take the photographs.
We went to her kitchen, and Ms. Hepburn sat on a chair by the kitchen table. After Deb and I donned latex gloves and I warmed the photography mirror with water from the sink, I requested that Ms. Hepburn tilt her head backwards a bit. Deb, standing behind her, gently placed the cheek retractors into position. I recorded several photographs, rapidly, using Kodachrome 64 color slide film (Figure 4 and Figure 5).
We concluded with more conversation about dental photography and children, and she also told us about her autobiographical book that was in the works. As a parting gift, we presented Ms. Hepburn with a brand new Hollenback #3 Carver. We explained to her that a series of hand instruments had been developed by Dr. Hollenback and described how they were used to carve silver amalgam in the mouth and wax in the laboratory. She had not known about Hollenback Carvers, and appeared delighted to have that keepsake. As we were leaving, Ms. Hepburn thanked Deb and me for not requesting autographs. “Autographs have ruined my life,” she said. “I receive hundreds of requests and I don’t know who likes my performances and who wants to sell my signature.”
In September of 1991, I wrote Ms. Hepburn and let her know that I truly enjoyed Me: Stories of My Life, her autobiography. She responded soon after with a request for my book, once more mentioning how important education is in children’s dentistry (Figure 6). In August of 1993, after receiving a copy of my book, which included a photograph of some of her maxillary gold inlays in the “Tooth Restorations Made of Metal” chapter, she let me know that the book was “terrifying” (Figure 7).
In the mid-1990s, I phoned Ms. Hepburn to let her know that a second edition of the book was to be published in 1999 and her photograph would still be used in the metal restorations chapter. She said that she was pleased she had been able to help and wished me well with the book (Figure 8). In our last phone conversation in the late 1990s, Ms. Hepburn told me that her gold work was still holding up nicely. In 2003, at 96 years of age, Katharine Houghton Hepburn died in Fenwick, Connecticut. As far as I know, the dental restorations pictured here lasted all those years.
In 2009, the United States Postal Service honored Katharine Houghton Hepburn with a 44-cent stamp (Figure 9). The stamp pictured a young star peering upwards, perhaps auguring heights of accomplishment that she would achieve over the decades in the 20th century. The striking image will always remind this writer of a gracious and kind cinema legend, who thought enough of children and dentistry to make a date.
Care was taken to assure that mirror image photographs were flipped to show actual left and right orientation. After digitization of the color film images, there was some confusion as to proper orientation, but the author believes that the images are pictured accurately. If any reader has additional information about precise dates when Ms. Hepburn’s gold restorations were placed, or what dentist, besides Dr. Hollenback, completed the treatment, the author would be grateful for that information. Dr. Croll can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
1. Donaldson JA. The use of gold in dentistry: an historical overview. J Hist Dent. 2012;60(3):134-147.
2. Donovon T, Simonsen RJ, Guertin G, Tucker RV. Retrospective clinical evaluation of 1,314 cast gold restorations in service from 1 to 52 years. J Esthet Restor Dent. 2012;16(3):194-204.
3. Croll TP. The No Boring Science: Take Care of Your
Kid’s Mouth Book. 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: ASDC Kids Mouth Book; 1999.
4. Smith RR. Dr. George Hollenback: The image of perfection. Dental Dimensions. 1978;11(5):15-16.
5. Paffenbarger GC. The disciples of Eugene W. Skinner: Philander B. Taylor and George M. Hollenback. Oper Dent. 1977;2(4):148-153.
6. Tennant F. Howard Hughes and pseudoaddiction. Practical Pain Management. 2007;7(6):12-29.
About the Authors
Theodore P. Croll, DDS
Department of Pediatric Dentistry University of Washington School of Dentistry
Department of Pediatric Dentistry, University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio
San Antonio, Texas