Letters and Loose Teeth: the Notes of John W. Houck

Although I endeavor to be the type of student who maintains tidy lecture notes with one chronologically organized folder for each class, there will always be the days when I find myself jotting down information on the back of a receipt, the margins of the Daily Pennsylvanian or a flattened cardboard coffee sleeve, having forgotten my notebook at home. I am not, however, the first absentminded student to find myself in this position. John W. Houck, a student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine from 1900 to 1901, had the habit of taking notes on loose scraps of paper, especially letters. To be fair, most of Houck’s notes are pretty well organized. He filled three composition books with information on everything from mixing dental plaster to treating gingivitis. But stuffed into these books are letters and scraps of paper which carry information about the lectures Houck attended as well as his life outside of the classroom.


Never one to waste a loose scrap of paper, John W. Houck filled the margins and backs of letters with lecture notes.

One unfinished letter, dated and addressed in immaculate cursive to a “Kind Friend” continues (now hastily and in pencil) “What is chemical action of AgNO3 on tooth structure Read.” Another letter, the back of which details the merits of celluloid strips, expresses the hope of one of Houck’s patients that he will “finish with my dental work as soon as possible.” The most  intriguing of these little palimpsests are two letters sent to Houck from a woman named Grace. In one, she writes:

Dear John,

You haven’t gone to Canada with my pocket book have you, John? I haven’t needed it ‘specially because I have nothing to put inside it but I was afraid that it might have been sent and gone away.



The back of this letter bears Houck’s notes on tooth implantation. Another letter from Grace (which also contains notes on the chemical treatment of tooth discoloration) reads:

Meet me at Broad St. Station- the small waiting room on Thursday unless it should rain terrifically. I do not know what to do to get even with you for writing “Respectfully” to me.

Trusting that I will see you soon





A letter from the mysterious Grace is complemented by Houck’s own notes on dental treatments.

Who was Grace? Why did Houck have her pocketbook? Was it terrifically rainy after all? This tiny glimpse into Houck’s personal life makes me want to know more about him, and somehow the fact that these clues are embedded in pages and pages describing dental necrosis and infantile scurvy makes them even more alluring. Unfortunately, there’s not much information available about John Houck besides the fact that he moved back to his native Scranton after graduation and married a woman named Hazel. The letters from Grace only ended up in this collection because of the lecture material written over them– Houck probably forgot to bring his notebooks to class one day and instead used what pieces of paper he had. Still, these pages add a personal dimension to the collection that is otherwise absent from Houck’s notes.

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