The American Dental Trade Association (est. 1882)
The ADTA owed its existence to the vision of Lee Stewart Smith, a Pittsburgh dental dealer. In 1881, Smith found himself increasingly disillusioned with the state of the dental trade in the United States. Although the number of dental professionals was increasing, many dental dealers and manufacturers faced the prospect of financial ruin due to mutual distrust, unethical sales techniques, and unsound business practices. Recognizing that this situation could not continue, Smith called a meeting in Pittsburgh on February 8, 1882 to discuss forming a national association. Representatives from twenty-two companies were present, including John G. Patterson (co-founder of Patterson Companies), Jacob Frick Frantz (future founder of Dentsply), Henry M. Lewis (head of S.S. White), and G.W. Kelly (a representative of the H.D. Justi Company). Although these august men remained suspicious of one another’s intentions, they also recognized the necessity of cooperation and therefore agreed to form a trade association under the leadership Dr. John Littlefield of Codman & Shurtleff. For his efforts in establishing the association, Smith would have the honor of serving as the organization’s secretary until he himself was elected to the presidency in 1906.
The ADTA’s earliest members were a group of rugged individualists. Some had fought on the battlefields of the Civil War while others were self-made men who had built their businesses from the ground up. It should come as no surprise then that they were quite reticent to cooperate with one another, fearing that doing so would give their competitors an advantage. The association’s leadership worked hard to defuse these tensions, hiring a full-time staff in Washington D.C. to provide special services such as catalog binding, establishing individual sections for manufacturers and dealers, and even holding a golf tournament at every Annual Meeting, the logic being that if a man counted his strokes honestly, he was honest enough to do business with. Through these efforts, suspicions were gradually allayed, new industry practices were put into place, and old abuses were finally put to rest. As a result, both the organization and its members prospered greatly, so much so that by the its fiftieth anniversary, ADTA had over 160 members including Young Dental, Kerr, Pelton & Crane, Burkhart, Bosworth, Nashville Dental, Goetze Dental, Atlanta Dental Supply, and Dentsply.
For all the good it did in those early days, not all of ADTA’s actions can be considered so praiseworthy. Some of its earliest policies had to be revised after the passage of federal anti-trust legislation and from its very beginning the association was dogged by allegations of price fixing, stifling of competition, setting up territories, and most troublingly, anti-Semitism. This would eventually prompt the FTC to issue a cease and desist order against the ADTA in 1950. Although members would continue to vehemently deny the FTC’s accusations, they nevertheless complied with the order.
The FTC order was ADTA’s darkest moment, but it would also mark a turning point for the organization and its members. While the association had already been blessed with some remarkable leaders, the newest generation would include some true titans of the industry such as Dentsply’s Henry Thornton. Under these individuals’ leadership, ADTA launched numerous initiatives aimed at establishing better relations with the dental profession and repairing the organization’s reputation. A student loan program was set up to help put students through dental school and the Dental Trade Foundation, a precursor to DTA’s own foundation, was established to supply surplus medical equipment to organizations around the world. ADTA would also play a key financial and organizational role in the establishment of the American Fund for Dental Education, better known today as Oral Health America. Finally, ADTA established a group dental plan for its members and their employees at a time when dental plans were still a rarity in the United States.
Even as it increased its philanthropic endeavours, ADTA’s leaders never lost sight of the organization’s original purpose. As new challenges emerged, particularly in the form of FDA regulations in the 1970’s and 80’s, the organization worked hard to prepare its member for the challenges of modern industry. ADTA’s regulatory committee worked closely with the FDA to develop and revise industry regulations, and the organization also published a Good Manufacturing Practices Manual to help members adapt to these new circumstances. Education also remained a high priority, as the ADTA continued to play a significant role in training sales representatives for many companies. One of the more notable efforts in this area was the production of a series of VHS tapes entitled The Introduction to Dentistry, which has since gone on to become one of DTA’s most popular educational programs.
Although the ADTA had its fair share of ups and downs, by the end of its 122 year run, its members had accomplished more than Lee Stewart Smith could have possibly imagined. They not only helped grow the dental trade, but also played a significant role in improving oral healthcare and shaping the regulations that govern our industry. Of all the voices in the dental trade, ADTA was among the strongest. However, it would not be the only voice clamoring to be heard.