Women Who Inspire Us: Ida Gray Nelson Rollins

portrait of Ida Gray Nelson Rollins

In 1890, Ida Gray Nelson Rollins graduated from the University of Michigan College of Dentistry. She was one of just three women in her graduating class, and was the very first African-American woman dentist in the United States. 

Rollins was born in Tennessee in 1867, and orphaned as a teenager when her mother died. She never knew her father, knowing only that he was white. Rollins went to live with her aunt in Ohio and found work as a seamstress and dressmaker. Later, she worked in the dental office of Jonathan Taft while finishing high school. 

Taft, who became the first dean of the dental college at the University of Michigan, supported admitting women to the program. His mentorship of Rollins helped prepare her for the entrance exam. When she graduated, she was the only African-American woman to ever have earned a Doctorate of Dental Surgery in the United States. 

Rollins opened her own practice in Ohio, then later moved to Chicago with her husband and continued to practice there. She was vice president of the Professional Women's Club of Chicago and part of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, a group that maintained the only black women's shelter in Chicago. 

Rollins died in 1953, but her name lives on through an annual diversity award given by the School of Dentistry at the University of Michigan.