The events of this past week raised the specter of overt bigotry in America. Bigotry of any form cannot be defended. Apologists for historical bigots always fall back on the argument of cultural relativism. Cultural relativists would say that if bigotry is deemed morally acceptable by a particular society at a particular point in time, then it shouldn’t be rebuked by someone outside of that society or someone from a different era. I’m sure that at least some of you have heard the excuse that “everyone was racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, and homophobic back then so you can’t hold it against so and so because it was acceptable!”
Fifteen years ago, a colleague sent me two letters that Edward Angle wrote to Charles Tweed in 1929 (See the images below). These letters are in the Library of Congress and can be accessed by the public. The man that Angle disparages in these letters, Rodrigues Ottolengui, was an orthodontist and the Editor of Dental Items of Interest. Ottolengui was born in Charleston, S.C. in March 1861 one month prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Why did Angle write such anti-Semitic epithets about Ottolengui? Here’s the short story. Angle decided that orthodontics should secede from dentistry and engineered a bill in the California legislature to license orthodontists without a dental degree. Ottolengui wrote an editorial presenting arguments against the Bill in Dental Items of Interest. The Bill was rejected by the legislature.
It is very hard for us to come to grips with the fact that some of our heroes are not infallible. I am an avid baseball fan. As such, I fondly remember being 9 and the Philadelphia Phillies winning the 1980 World Series. My favorite player was Pete Rose who holds the record for the greatest number of career hits in baseball-4,256. However, Pete Rose will never enter the Baseball Hall of Fame because he bet on baseball while serving as a player-manager. Thirty years later, I cannot celebrate his accomplishments on the diamond without at the same time thinking about his lack of a moral compass and unrepentant attitude that still persists to this day. There is no such thing as the Pete Rose Award, the Pete Rose Lecture, or the Pete Rose Society.
As monuments that honor the bigoted men who seceded from the Union are taken down in the night, orthodontists should reconsider bestowing the name of a bigoted man on an award, a lecture, and a society. It’s time to secede from the tyranny of our specialty’s past and shine a bright light on who we are today.
Marc Ackerman, DMD, MBA, FACD