True Grit

With the Great War raging and her family an ocean away, Erna Neumann, a dental student from Germany, was determined to finish her education

Women students from the dental and medical schools in 1917, with Erna Neumann front row, far left

In the spring of 1918, Erna Neumann was in her final semester at Tufts College Dental School, and she was anxious. The 23-year-old feared that all the effort and money she had put into her education was about to come to nothing.

The antipathy toward German students like herself had grown as World War I progressed. Her accent was a liability; playing German music was asking for trouble. Some of her classmates suspected she might even be a spy. “We thought she had bombs in her trunk,” one admitted later. Then, just a few months from finishing her dental studies, she learned that two nursing students she knew had been told to leave their school because they were German.

So Neumann gathered her moxie and made an appointment to see Hermon Carey Bumpus, the president of Tufts University. She told him that she was a good student, and that the war had nothing to do with her. “I have just my last semester,” she told him. “I have no money. I am only full of debt. Are you going to throw me out, too?”

No, he said, he would not. And a few weeks later, at an annual dinner for the dental class, he sought her out. She had had to borrow money for her white tulle dress; the blue and white flowers she wore were a gift from the family she was staying with. As the many men in her class angled to get Dr. Bumpus’ attention, the president came forward and spoke to her. “How is everything?” he asked. “Are you all right?”

Neumann recalled the moment with pride and wonder. “This poor student, no place to go, no money in the bank, and the president picked me out,” she said. “And I had a beautiful dress and three orchids.”

She would soon be one of the five women to graduate with the class of 1918 and go on to become one of the first women dentists in Vermont.

Neumann’s story was unearthed recently in the form of a typed, six-page manuscript, written by her in 1976 and found in the drawer of a Tufts administrator who was changing offices. But there was more. In the attic of the Burlington, Vt., home where Neumann lived most of her life were letters, yearbooks, reunion photos and audiotapes that fleshed out her story, one of an adventuresome woman who had a deep affection for her alma mater. She provides evocative details of what it was like to be not just a dental student a century ago, but one of a handful of women amid hundreds of male students and an “enemy alien” in a foreign land.

The Governess Goes to School

Erna Neumann and her sister Kathe arrived in Boston on April 9, 1914. They had left Germany to spend a year in the United States as governesses. Their first stop after docking was for a drink, and Erna was able to give America a hint of her copious stores of pluck when the waiter refused to serve her a beer because she was not yet 20.

Erna Neumann’s alien registration card, issued during World War IErna Neumann’s alien registration card, issued during World War I
“What?” she asked incredulously. “And this should be a free country?”

Still, she found America intoxicating. “Everything was just so delightful for us,” she recalls on a scratchy audiotape, her accent only slightly mellowed with age.

Just a few months later, though, war broke out in Europe. Their family thought it would be safer for the sisters to stay away for a while. After all, how long could the war last?

But the fighting dragged on, and the sisters were soon cut off from their family. Neumann needed a plan for her future. She was interested in dental school, but she had only $225 in the bank from her governess job, an amount that would barely pay the first year’s tuition. A minister she had befriended encouraged her to apply anyway. Deciding which school wasn’t much of a problem. There were only two dental schools in the area, and only one accepted “girls.”

“So,” the minister said, “your choice is Tufts.”

Neumann didn’t sleep for a few nights after she was accepted. “I almost thought lightning struck me,” she writes. “Can you imagine the decision to make, all alone in this country?” In the end she enrolled, with the understanding that she could stay with the minister’s family, sharing a bed with his sister-in-law and paying $3 a week for room and board while her money lasted.

The 1918 dental class began as a group of 237 men and seven women. In the Dentufts yearbook, her classmates describe their first gathering, in September 1915: “When … each of us ran our eyes over the throng, all invariably stopped to rest a moment longer on the blushing countenance of our Erna; of course she looked down quite demurely.”

Yet soon, they wrote, she was known for her “assiduous application to her studies.” One of their first assignments was to carve teeth out of ivory in the “Technic” laboratory. She recounts the groans to be heard when an instructor put his calipers to the carvings and proclaimed, “Sir, this is just a trifle too deep here—start a new one!”

The students were also charged with making their own dental instruments. Neumann recalled these tools being dark-colored (stainless steel not yet readily available) and not things they used in practice.

Neumann writes fondly of Professor George Bates, who taught histology, and Professor Robert Andrews, who taught physiology. (Both men are honored every year at Tufts on Bates-Andrews Day, which celebrates and showcases the work of dental student researchers.)

Bates, in particular, took her under his wing. During her first test in histology, he could see that she was staring blankly at some of the questions. Bates, whom she recalls as kind and fatherly, coaxed her: “Write it in German if it is too much for you in English.”

She replied: “It’s too much for me in either language just now, Dr. Bates.”

She enjoyed her classes, particularly anatomy, which she took in her second semester. She was grateful that after her labs, she had a 45-minute walk home across Harvard Bridge, “where the prevailing wind eliminated the formaldehyde and other odors of Anatomy which clung to my clothing…”

Summers gave her an opportunity to save money by working as a governess; her sister and a friend generously offered to front her the other money she needed for school. And she did indeed have many expenses in her second year: “an instrument case, plus more laboratory equipment and books, besides tuition,” she writes.

Another major expense was the foot-engine. Electric drills were not yet common for students, so Neumann and her classmates had to purchase heavy, pedal-driven machines—not unlike spinning wheels—to power their dental drills.

She writes: “We carried the instrument case in one hand and the foot-engine in the other from floor to floor where it was needed: Crown and Bridge Lab, Prosthetics, Infirmary and the back of the locker. It would have been eye-opening to the advocates of Women’s Lib—we had it then, and we were too busy for analyzing our position or worrying about our status. Everyone was on his or her own—no discrimination either or favors.” The one difference of being a female dental student, she writes, is that when the men lost an instrument or broke an impression, they tempered their profanity around her.

The dental school hours were from 9 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m., and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. “Strict attendance was taken at all classes and labs, and there was little time wasted,” she writes.

The infirmary had a huge, communal boiling-water sterilizer, with individual, perforated metal holders for the instruments. Neumann notes that one had to watch that one’s instruments did not disappear. She writes: “A story evolved that ‘the Lord helps those who help themselves—the Lord is very busy in our Infirmary!’ ”

War, Then Peace

Once the United States entered the war, German students were required to register as enemy aliens. Neumann was issued a registration card that she had to carry with her at all times. She had to report to the registrar monthly and needed permission to travel or change her residence. Yet not everyone kept her at arm’slength. She made strong friendships at Tufts, particularly with some of the other women in her class.

Neumann at Commencement, June 17, 1918Neumann at Commencement, June 17, 1918

Neumann was not the only student to notice that immigrants who had come to the clinic a few years prior with sound teeth now had extensive cavities. She suggested to some of her professors that the problem might have something to do with the patients’ change in diet. The professors just smiled at her, she wrote, and declared, “What is this youngster trying to tell us!”

Her interest in nutrition, however, only grew with the research coming out of the Forsyth Dental Infirmary, which was studying nutrition among the thousands of Boston school children who were treated there for free. She hoped to work there after graduation, but the Massachusetts State Board of Directors would not give her a license to practice while the war continued. Instead, she took a position as an assistant to a dentist in Roxbury. “He and his wife treated me like a daughter, when no one would have given employment to a German enemy-alien, who had to report to the police every month.” They also gave her a “huge” salary of $12 per week.

Peace finally came on November 11, 1918. A few months later, she received her license, and in the spring of 1919 she was accepted at the Forsyth.

She describes some of her experiences at Tufts and Forsyth in letters she wrote to Alfred Heininger, a law student she had met in 1917. He had moved back to work at his family’s construction firm in Burlington, Vt., but their romance continued. She writes of everyday events, including studying for an exam about Novocain, boycotting the trolley because the fare was raised a few pennies and watching the laying of linoleum in one of the dental buildings, with an eye to detail that gives a glimpse into why she would make a good dentist.

She writes to Heininger of a typical day at Forsyth: “It is 2:30 p.m., and for a moment I am resting peacefully in my chair. If I pressed the electric button, a signal for another patient, soon a little youngster would rush around the corner.” Later, she writes of the complexity of using Novocain, invented only 15 years earlier: “It was a very busy day, including 2 conductive [local] anesthesia cases, which take much work and time, and came out quite successful. I was just absorbed in my work, and the last one to leave the clinic.”

When Erna wed Alfred in 1920, she was marrying into a veritable dental family: three of his brothers were dentists (and one was a doctor). She joined one of her brothers-in-law, Bruno Heininger, in his downtown Burlington practice. A photograph that Neumann took, circa 1924, shows that their second-floor dental office (above a striped-awning drugstore) overlooked a busy street filled with both motor cars and horse-drawn carriages.

Her nephew, Calef Heininger, now 83, one of two cousins in the next generation who also became dentists, recalls he was too young to see Neumann at work, but he imagines the scene being similar to his father’s dental office in the 1930s. Even then, there were no X-ray machines, and the cable-driven drills were noisy and vibrated.

Neumann practiced for five years before turning her attention to raising her three children. Her second daughter, Sylvia Holden, 83, lives in the house where she grew up, a roomy four-square in what was once a working-class, immigrant neighborhood of Burlington. She also is too young to have seen her mother at work, but the family story is that whenever her Uncle Bruno would call to say, “You’ve got to come in immediately! The orphanage has just arrived!” her mother dropped everything and went.

She says her parents were focused on their community, particularly when the Depression left so many people impoverished. Women in threadbare fox furs would come to the house, and the family would take care of them in various ways.

“My mother used to say my father had the biggest free law practice in the state of Vermont,” Sylvia Holden says. Her mother was always available to translate a letter for a German neighbor, or lend a sympathetic ear to any callers. “She would knit while she was listening to their troubles.”

Neumann helped her husband with his political career, which was also focused on caring for the needy. He served six years in the Vermont Senate and even ran for governor in 1936. He is best known as the father of Vermont’s social welfare system, as he helped shuttle one of the nation’s first old-age pension laws through the Legislature.

One of Neumann’s grandchildren, Alfred Holden, helped capture some of her stories when he was a teenager. “I would bring out the cassette recorder, and I would drop a date,” he says. “And she was so alert in her memory that she could pick up on that date and tell you things, specific things, about it.”

The year 1934, for example, would be when she met another trailblazer, Amelia Earhart. The famous aviatrix was promoting her new airline for business travel, and she invited the wives of local business leaders to fly with her. While it was exciting to meet Earhart, flying was old hat for Erna. She had frequently taken barnstorming flights at the Burlington airfield.

“I don’t know if she was afraid of anything,” says Alfred Holden. “She was a live wire all through my life. Full of life and enjoyment. She was game for things. She wouldn’t say, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ ”

Erna Neumann at age 93Erna Neumann at age 93
Neumann’s nephew, Calef Heininger, became her dentist when she was in her 70s. (She managed to keep most of her teeth her whole life.) “She was quite a positive person, although she had her opinions,” he says.

He also marveled that she would put her car away each winter and walk, almost daily, a couple miles uphill to visit friends. “Her motto was, ‘Down the road of life you get to the end much quicker in a car than you do on foot.’ ”

She lived to be almost 97 (she died on February 15, 1991), and was lucid up until the last few days of her life. Her family has held onto the letters that speak of love and linoleum, the dental reunion photos that show her in a sea of men, as well as the enemy alien card that she had to carry with her during the war. They even have her old dental tools; her grandson often uses the little round mirror to check over his own teeth.

Although she practiced dentistry only for a short time, she was very proud of her Tufts education. She attended many reunions, including her 64th, in 1982. And the story of her meeting with Tufts President Bumpus is family legend.

“She had spunk; she used it very strategically,” says Alfred Holden, her grandson. “We’re proud, of course, that she would have made her case” to finish her dental studies.

This story first appeared in the spring 2013 issue of Tufts Dental Medicine magazine.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at

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