Drs. Lester Noble and Nathan Cooley Keep
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Lester Noble, D.D.S.
Have you ever had a tooth extracted without anesthesia? Thanks in part to Dr. Lester Noble and Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep, you may never have to experience that pain.
Lester Noble had always been good with his hands. He first arrived in Longmeadow in 1839 as an apprentice to his uncle, Jacob Colton, and learned how to manufacture spectacles. But, he decided to become a dentist instead, and in 1846 he went to Boston to study dentistry under Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep.
Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep
Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep, who was born and raised in Longmeadow, was one of the pioneers of modern dentistry. Like Lester Noble, he was good with his hands and had apprenticed with a jeweler before graduating from Harvard Medical School. Dr. Keep put his jeweler training to good use by manufacturing porcelain teeth, and he invented new dental tools and created new dental techniques.
Lester Noble studied under Dr. Keep from 1846–1849. During this period, a new anesthetic, ether, was being introduced in surgical practices. Dr. Keep was the first physician to use anesthesia for childbirth, administering ether to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, during the birth of her daughter in 1847. Dr. Keep was also one of the first physicians to use ether in dental procedures and his assistant, Lester Noble, became skilled in its administration. On many occasions, Lester would assist Dr. Keep in dental surgery, administering the ether while Dr. Keep extracted teeth.
Baltimore College of Dental Surgery
To further his studies, in 1849 Lester Noble entered the world's first dental college, Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. At that time, the school was not using ether in dental surgery because one of the professors at the school opposed its use. Surprised at this, Dr. Noble asked for and was given permission to administer ether in the college infirmary. His great success in these demonstrations helped this crucial technique to become standard dental practice.
After Dr. Noble graduated in 1850, he opened a dental office in Washington, D.C. and married Mary Woolworth Burbank of Longmeadow. Lester’s younger brother, Henry Bliss Noble, followed in his brother’s footsteps, also practicing dentistry in Washington, D.C. and marrying a woman from Longmeadow (Maria Bliss). In his dental practice, Henry Bliss Noble mentored a young African-American man named Robert Tanner Freeman (we will learn more about Mr. Freeman later in this story).
In 1860, failing eyesight forced Lester to take a break from dental practice. He and his family moved to 655 Longmeadow Street in Longmeadow where they lived for the rest of their lives. By 1869, Lester was able to resume his dental practice; he opened an office on Main Street in Springfield where he practiced until 1896.
655 Longmeadow Street
In 1867, Dr. Keep became the first dean of Harvard School of Dental Medicine. A story from the early years of the school highlights Dr. Keep’s character. Robert Tanner Freeman, the son of former slaves (and former mentee of Henry Bliss Noble), called upon Dr. Keep and asked to be admitted as a student. Perhaps Mr. Freeman brought a recommendation from one of the Noble brothers with him. Upon Dr. Keep’s recommendation and insistence upon “right and justice above expediency”, Mr. Freeman was admitted as one of the school's first six students and, in 1869, Mr. Freeman became the first African-American to graduate from a dental college. The tower, or castle “keep,” that appears on the shield of Harvard School of Dental Medicine honors the leadership of Dr. Nathan Cooley Keep.
Robert Tanner Freeman
Dr. Noble was beloved by his patients and always regaled them with his endless fund of stories and anecdotes. He was also absent-minded, and several stories about him have traveled down through the years.
One day, Miss Annie Willard was in the chair receiving a new gold filling. Dr. Noble suddenly remembered that he wished to mail a letter, and he left her in the dentist’s chair with a rubber stretched across her open mouth. While he was out, he found someone that he needed to talk with. Forgetting his patient, he was out for 1½ hours before he remembered her and rushed back to his office.
On another occasion, his horse was stolen. He went out to the barn in the morning to feed the animal and found that it was not there. He carefully examined all tracks, and called in the neighbors to help him find his horse, but they could find no trace of him, so they decided that the horse had been stolen. But, when Dr. Noble walked up to the store, there was his horse hitched to the post – just where he had left him on the previous afternoon.
Dr. Noble died in 1905, but I, for one, will always think of him whenever I visit my dentist. Next week, we will visit Dr. Keep and Dr. Noble again as we learn of another of their "firsts".
1900 U.S. Federal Census
Longmeadow Historical Society Archives
Springfield Republican Feb. 22, 1905
History of Harvard School of Dental Medicine
Wikipedia- Nathan Cooley Keep
Wikipedia- Robert Tanner Freeman
Black Past- Robert Tanner Freeman
Contributed by Elizabeth Hoff, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member