Cobbett broke ground as area’s first female dentist

Judith Cobbett looks through newspaper clippings in her Beaumont home. Cobbett was the first female dentist in Southeast Texas. Photo by Andy Coughlan

On the surface, Judith Cobbett was living a good life. She was married to a wealthy businessman and was a staple on the Houston social scene. She even had a classic Rolls Royce — a birthday gift from her husband.

But she wanted more.

Judith was intelligent. She was valedictorian of St. Anthony’s High School, and she was determined to live life on her own terms. After dropping out of Lamar University when her first husband got a job at NASA and moved to Cape Canaveral in Florida, she returned to school to study art at the University of Houston.

But she still wasn’t satisfied.

“I just realized that my intellect was not being used and I just wanted to do something beyond art,” she said. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t talented, I made straight A’s, but I didn’t feel I’ll ever be a Picasso. And I felt like I’d be a good doctor.”

Judith decided to switch to dental school. But when her second husband, Edd Dunnam, started to plan how and where she was going to practice, Judith made a tough choice.

“I decided no, it was time to just make it on my own,” she said. “I wanted to have my own form of success. I felt like I needed to do more than just be a plaything.

“I took no money. Well, so little that I could barely eat. But anyway, I made it. We ate hors d’oeuvres after class — the dental students and I found the place that gave away free hors d’oeuvres and a glass of wine.”

There was one thing Judith needed — a car to get around.

“We had a Rolls Royce that we had wonderful times with — a big classic one that he gave to me for a birthday present — and a Cadillac and a Lincoln, and it was kind of, ‘What do I drive to dental school?’ I certainly wasn’t going to be driving any Rolls Royce up there,” she said, with a hearty laugh. “So, I chose the Cadillac.”

Judith Cobbett shows off a story about her Rolls Royce through newspaper clippings in her home. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Judith was in her late 20s with two marriages behind her when she returned to school. She did five years of undergraduate work — “I was trying to get in all the medical stuff, too” — and then it was time for dental school.

“I didn’t know at the time, but at that particular year, they were pressured to accept females,” she said.

In a class of 100, six women were accepted, in addition to one Black person and one Latino person.

One woman dropped out straight away and none of the others stayed in Texas, Judith said. But she finally earned her diploma in 1977. Although she was one of 20 students allowed to graduate early because of their grades and performance on practical tests, she was aware that being a woman in the 1970s brought certain expectations.

“I was young and single and pretty at the time,” she said. “While I was taking my board exams, seven dental examiners would come down and you’d have to do practical and oral exams. I was pressured to go out with one of them, just really pressured strong. And I just always smiled and said as cutely as I could — just let me get on with my work.”

A 1978 newspaper photo of Judith Cobbett when she set up her practice as the first female dentist in Southeast Texas.

The dental exam was enough pressure itself, Judith said. She not only had to pass a written exam, but also show them she could make a gold crown, including melting the gold herself.

“It was so cold in Houston that the gas pressure was down. So, I couldn’t get a hot flame,” she said. “Finally, I went and got one of the examiners and said, ‘I want to show you my problem.’ We finally figured out the pressure and got it poured because you couldn’t pass without that gold crown.”

In 1977, with her qualifications in hand, Judith moved back to Beaumont where her parents still lived. She went to work for the city health clinic, which she said was antiquated, and got a state loan for new equipment and a new clinic.

She practiced there for quite a while, one day a week, helping with Medicare patients.

She also subbed for other dentists for about six months. When a dentist died, Judith decided to start her own practice and buy his office at 2570 Laurel St. She went to Beaumont State Bank for a loan and told the banker her plans.

“He was very nice, but he said, ‘Well, why don’t you come back tomorrow with your financial statement?’” she said. “And I looked at his desk, and I said, ‘Could you give me that index card you have sitting there?’ I put a big zero on it. And he smiled. I said, ‘That’s my total financial statement.’

“The next day, he called me up and said, ‘You have your loan for the full amount you asked for.’

“It was just such a pleasant experience to be in Beaumont and have that happen. They didn’t question me at all. They just let me have my degree, and they had confidence that I could make it.”

Judith Cobbett was the first female dentist in Southeast Texas and ran a regular feature in the newspaper.

Not everyone was as receptive. When she attended the local dentists’ association meeting, she was not welcomed.

“I went to one meeting, and every time I tried to sit down, they told me (the seat) was taken,” she said. “So, I never went back.”

Judith said the whole time she practiced, there was not another woman dentist in the area. She was discriminated against and rumors were circulated that they didn’t think a woman was capable of pulling teeth.

“I was excellent at extracting teeth because I was gentle — I knew how to use the right tools and didn’t create a lot of pain for my patients,” she said.

“I felt like I was a very compassionate dentist, but they spread rumors that I wasn’t any good. How can a female do what they did?

“I didn’t pay any attention. I just kept on with doing what I knew I could do well. I stuck with it and didn’t really need their approval.”

Before the internet, one depended on the telephone book for business, but they were strict on what went in an ad, Judith said. One year, she was preparing her usual ad when the telephone company said the rules had changed and she could do anything she wanted for advertising.

“They came in with a sample ad that said, ‘We cater to cowards,” and I said no, that doesn’t sound very professional,” she said. “But they did it anyway. My business grew and my dental practice just flew open. It was just amazing. I was as busy as I could possibly be.”

A telephone book ad for Judith Cobbett’s practice with the slogan, “We Cater To Cowards.”

Judith is now almost 82 and said she has had a great life, which is part of the reason she chose dentistry.

“I interviewed some dentists and also looked at a lot of medical (fields) — I got to go in to watch Dr. DeBakey do a heart surgery from observatory,” she said. “I just decided that I wanted my life to be open to having other pursuits.

“Dentistry offered me that. I could live a life with artists, and with artistry and traveling a lot easier as a dentist than I could as a medical doctor.”

The same independent spirit that led Judith to travel also led her to pave the way for women dentists in Southeast Texas.

“I feel proud that I was able to overcome any adversities,” she said.

This story originally ran in the March 27, 2022 edition of The Beaumont Enterprise.

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