Dentists I Have Not Known: “I am yours very truly” James Howell Harris, MD, DDS

This cabinet card portrait of Dr. James Howell Harris, MD, DDS, is dated 2 March 1888, the date of the 1888 commencement ceremony for the Dental Department of the University of Maryland, where Dr. Harris was a founding faculty member.

Harris’ life and career are fairly well-documented in the history University of Maryland, 1807-1907.

Harris was born on 31 October 1834 in Albemarle County, Virginia, to blacksmith Alanson Harris (1811-1866) and Sophia Ann Harris (1815-1893).  In 1861, James Harris earned the newly-emerging credential of Doctor of Dental Surgery from the prestigious Baltimore College of Dental Surgery. He obtained a medical degree from the Baltimore College of Physicians and Surgeons.

After the Civil War, he taught at his dental alma mater, then in 1882  left to help organize the newly-formed Dental Department at the University of Maryland.

There he held a professorship of Operative and Clinical Dentistry until his death in Baltimore on 12 December 1910. He was a colleague of Dr. John Uhler, about whom I wrote in a recent post.

Fellow Virginian Dr. Charles Lowndes Steel, Sr. (1860-1904; DDS Baltimore College of Dental Surgery 1881), brother of  Dr. Frank Ryland Steel DDS (University of Maryland Dental Dept. Class of 1888) boarded in the Harris home  on North Eutaw, and married Dr. Harris’ daughter Ella Harris (1868-1924).

His brother, Franklin Lewis Harris (1848-1911; DDS 1870, Baltimore College of Dental Surgery) and two of his sons, Charles C. Harris and James Edwin Harris (DDS, 1884, University of Maryland Dental Dept.), followed him into the dental profession.

Several obituaries mention that Dr. Harris served in the Confederate Medical Corps (Baltimore American 13 Dec 1910; Baltimore Sun 13 Dec 1910). I found a passing reference to his service in Company I of the 4th Virginia Cavalry (Marylanders in the Confederacy, Daniel Hartzler, 1986).

Harris is portrayed as a beloved  and devoted teacher who avoided public life.

Dr. Harris was, according to his biographer, “of a genial disposition and strong domestic habits” and an “active, enthusiastic and beloved teacher of successive classes of dental graduates.” 

One of his eulogists described him thus: “His students at the university were so deeply attached to him and he to them that they spent many of their evenings at his home” (Baltimore American 13 Dec 1910).

During his funeral, said the Sun, the senior class of the Dental Department gathered in front of his residence and marched “in a body” to Emmanuel Episcopal Church at Read and Cathedral streets “to pay their last respects” (Baltimore Sun 14 Dec 1910).

He is buried in Woodbine Cemetery, Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, Virginia, along with his second wife, Elizabeth Ann (Hardesty)  Harris (1841-1918).

According to Ross Kelbaugh’s Directory of Maryland Photographers, the studio of James S. Cummins‘ (1841-1895) was located at 5 N. Charles Street ca. 1886-1887, which fits nicely with my speculation that Dr. Harris gave this portrait as a token of affection to an unknown dental graduate in March 1888.

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