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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Leuman M. Waugh: Adventurer-Dentist

April 7 was World Health Awareness Day, and I was immediately drawn to the photograph and manuscript collections of Leuman M. Waugh.

They don’t seem to make people like Dr. Waugh anymore. A dentist, professor, adventurer and pilot, Waugh travelled Labrador and Alaska between 1921 and 1938 under the auspices of Columbia University and the U.S. Public Health Service studying and treating the teeth of the Inuit, Innu, and other indigenous people of the Arctic. He was a committed scientist and health care provider, a member of the Explorers’ Club who sailed his own custom-built yacht through Alaskan waters while conducting research, and an outstanding photographer who captured the starkness of the Arctic landscape and the beauty of its people.

Waugh made a detailed study of one of the many points of friction
that occur when traditional communities come into contact with modern, industrialized society: the negative effects on health that come with the introduction of non-traditional foods. The introduction of refined sugars and flour in the early 20th century had devastating effects on the teeth and overall health of Native Alaskans and Labradorians. As Waugh put it in an article dated April 5, 1939:

"Eskimos of Labrador and Alaska are free from caries [cavities] on native diets consisting almost entirely of proteins and fats and containing no fermentable carbohydrate.[T]he principal native foods are reindeer, whale, and walrus, in addition to seal fish and caribou.Caries, first noticed in this region in 1914, has increased in direct ratio to the amount of sweets consumed by each individual. In no case, however isolated, was carie found in Eskimos who had not received such sweets as sugar, candy, and molasses.”

Waugh lectured widely on the lessons he learned from Arctic Natives’ teeth, making “The Unsweetened Tooth Does Not Decay” his motto. But a much deeper lesson can be learned from Waugh’s studies. Traditional cultures develop foodways in the context of their physical environments and other traditions. While we shouldn’t romanticize the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the sudden introduction of mass-produced foods had long-term and unintended consequences on the health of these communities.

**Please check back soon for enhanced catalog records. All images featured in this post will be available on
SIRIS and the NMAI Collections Search site by June 2010. Image numbers are: P30054, L02250, L02373, L02275, and L2736.

Michael Pahn,
National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center,


  1. Great post! I will think of this when I am the dentist on Monday!

  2. My in-laws lived two doors from Dr. Waugh, after he retired to Betterton, MD. I spent many cocktail times with him from 1961 until his death in 1972. We enjoyed many "martoons" as he called a martini at each residence. He gave my wife I an 1856 harmonium which I have since passed on to my daughter. Dr. Waugh was a fun and spirited person to be around.

  3. wow impressive adventurer-dentist i wonder when he travels he help some locals in his profession as a dentist? i gotta to search for Dr.Waugh to lean more i hope he is a member in my phone book or dentistas in the net