Local History: Nova Scotia’s first Black woman dentist

Dr. Doris Rosalind Marshall. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Facing racism in Halifax, Dr. Rosalind Marshall became an American health-care trailblazer

Dr. Doris Rosalind Marshall, the first Nova Scotian Black woman to be a dentist, graduated from Dalhousie’s dentistry school in 1956, but never practised in the province.

An archive post on the school’s website shares her story. Her mother immigrated from the West Indies in 1951, and visited the dean of the dentistry faculty to ask about the possibility of her daughter enrolling. He warned her it would be a challenge, but recommended she apply.

Believing that “opportunities are there for Negroes if they will only take advantage of them,” Mrs. Marshall, urged her daughter on, and Doris applied to study dentistry. In 1952, she became the first Black student in the Doctor of Dental Surgery program.

Born in Halifax in 1924, Marshall had attended Bloomfield High School, becoming a secretary after graduation. Unfulfilled by the work, she then went to McGill University, earning degrees in philosophy and psychology. She was also an active member of the long-established West Indian Students’ Society, which promoted knowledge and understanding of the West Indies. Members also helped new students adapt to life in Canada.

She recalled later that she chose dentistry for several reasons. “I liked the idea that it was a health profession through which I could render a service” she said. “I also liked working with my hands.”

A childhood experience also influenced her. “As a young adult, I had a great deal of dental treatment myself,” she recalled. “My family dentist was able to save all my teeth without a single extraction … This was a tribute to the dental sciences.”

Marshall’s classes reunited her with that dentist, now her instructor.

In her free time, she was an active member of the Dalhousie West Indian Students’ Society, and during summers worked as a playground supervisor.

She graduated in 1956 but found few professional opportunities in Halifax, moving to Brantford, Ont. to become a school dentist. There she met Walter Harris and they married on Dec. 17, 1960. Marshall and her husband lived in Toronto briefly before moving to Teaneck, N.J.

Now known as Dr. Harris, she thrived as a dentist in New Jersey. She received a fellowship in pedodontics from the Guggenheim Dental Clinic in New York City and set up a private practice at her home.

She recalled that she found “a great joy of restoring a badly diseased mouth and bringing it back to good health … (It’s rewarding to) see someone who hasn’t been to a dentist for years be so pleased and thrilled with your work they become a patient on a regular schedule.”

Despite Halifax’s unwillingness to accept her, she appeared to bear no grudge, keeping ties to the city as president of the Dalhousie Alumni Club of New York. When interviewed in local news stories, she spoke highly of the university and its faculty.

She also encouraged interested girls to become dentists “because there is certainly a place for them. They have patience, manual dexterity, and a feeling for fine details, and all of this is an asset as far as dentistry is concerned.”

Looking back on her career, it’s impossible not to wonder how she could have transformed health care in the city, had Halifax accepted her as a professional.

She died in January 1987 at age 63.

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