Our History

The Forsyth Institute, an independent not-for-profit institution was founded in 1910 through a philanthropic gift of the Forsyth family. Originally named The Forsyth Dental Infirmary for Children, Forsyth focused primarily on the oral health needs of Boston’s disadvantaged children. In addition, it provided advanced clinical training for graduate dentists. These programs offered the opportunity for all children under the age of sixteen, regardless of socio-economic background, to obtain dental examinations and care for their teeth. More than 500,000 children, received free dental care at Forsyth.

In 1915 Forsyth embarked on its first scientific research program – discovering the first connections between dental decay and fluoride, nutrition and bacteria. As a result of these important discoveries, the dental profession was inspired to examine the scientific basis for oral disease. A progressive and pioneering leader in oral health, Forsyth launched the School for Dental Hygienists in 1916 and offered a highly regarded training program for dental hygienists until 2002.

With the realization that the need for dental care far exceeded Forsyth’s capacity, the organization expanded its mission in the 1960s to include scientific research. In 1996, the Forsyth changed its mission to reflect its commitment to research. 

Historical Timeline

1800s – 1910: Industrial wealth leads to philanthropy

American industrialists amassed great wealth in the latter part of the 19th century, when their products and services revolutionized the business world. These self-made millionaires used their philanthropy to fund noble initiatives that changed the course of history and brought needed resources to the population at large. Hospitals, colleges, community services, and other worthwhile initiatives were funded through the largesse of American industrialists. 

The Forsyth family is one example of industrial success. Emigrating from Scotland in the 1830s, William Forsyth pioneered the manufacture of vulcanized rubber goods. His four sons continued his business interests in the production of textiles combined with vulcanized rubber, creating substantial wealth for the family. Before his death, James Bennett Forsyth had begun discussions of establishing a dental clinic for the children of Boston. The origins of this dream stemmed from a simple conversation with his dentist about the pressing need for dental care for underserved children.

1910 – 1920: A Forsyth family dream fulfilled

In 1910, James’ two surviving Forsyth brothers, Thomas and John, along with their sister Mary, fulfilled his dream by founding the Forsyth Dental Infirmary for Children in Boston, Mass. Opening its doors in 1914, the new clinic was charged with providing complete oral therapy for children, with an emphasis on prevention of dental cavities. 

Dental interns and graduate dentists staffed the clinic. Thomas Forsyth remarked at the dedication ceremony, “It has been my wish that the Infirmary should be a home to the children, beautiful and cheerful; a protector of their health, a refuge in their pain.” In its first ten years, the Infirmary had treated over 150,000 children for dental and craniofacial problems.

Recognizing that oral hygiene was a key factor in controlling disease, Forsyth established The Forsyth School for Dental Hygienists in 1916. At the same time, its scientists pioneered important research in the field and its administrative leaders were instrumental in advancing the profession of dentistry.

1920 – 1950: The dental profession expands

During the ensuing decades, practicing dentists mastered the technical skills of their profession.  It became increasingly evident that there was a need to expand dental education to include a focus on basic medical science and research training. At the same time, there was a growing shift toward graduate level, multi-disciplinary studies. By 1950, dental schools had incorporated pediatric dentistry into their curricula.  Since Forsyth did not award graduate degrees, its prominence in the training of dental students began to wane.

1950 – 1960: The shift toward research

In 1950, the Forsyth trustees recognized that research and research training should be the primary mission of the institution, since other facilities were providing adequate treatment for children. Additionally, dentistry’s limited resources in the post-war era generated a request from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, supported by the U.S.. Children’s Bureau, to determine if hygienists could be trained in restorative dental procedures. The five-year experiment lasted only ten months as a result of the objections of practicing dentists.

Right about this time, a shift took place in the study of dentistry. Special emphasis was placed on the clinical application of human biological science to the understanding and treatment of oral disease.  Forsyth’s educational program expanded to include weekly lectures on topics such as pediatrics, nutrition, and anthropology, at which interns presented complete physiological, pathological and psychobiology assessments of patients treated in the clinic. Prominent scientists from a broad range of allied fields appeared as guest lecturers and an affiliation was formed with the Harvard School of Dental Medicine to promote sharing of scientific concepts and investigation.

A World Leader in Research

Since the 1960s, Forsyth has led the worldwide knowledge or oral health, prevention and has made many scientific breakthroughs.

Achievements in our history:

  • Identifying the cause of the two most common global infectious diseases, dental decay and gum disease
  • Identified the protective mechanisms of fluoride
  • Named oral site experts for the Human Microbiome Project
  • Discovering that cavities are the result of bacterial infection and identified the specific bacteria to blame. 
  • Developing the first local antibiotic to treat gum disease.
  • Discovering that the bacteria that cause tuberculosis, can lay dormant and thrive within bone marrow stem cells.

Bronze busts of the Forsyth brothers created by artists Bela Pratt, Roger Burnham and Albin Polasek.