One In a Million: William Dent, OD ’58

William Dent Group PhotoWhen Barack Obama was first elected to be the 44th president of the United States, William Dent OD ’58 was thrilled, to say the least. Dr. Dent understood the importance of what the President meant to the Black community.
 
For 50 years, Dr. Dent practiced as one of Philadelphia’s Black pioneers in the optometry profession. His decision to become an optometrist partially stemmed from his commitment to serve his community. “I thought I would be able to demonstrate all of the skills that I had and provide a service to Black people,” he said.
 
Just like President Obama, Dr. Dent understood what it meant to serve a community with grace and compassion, especially with odds stacked against him.  

Fresh out of a private high school in Augusta, Ga., Dr. Dent figured he’d do something in pharmaceuticals as his father owned a drug store their town, so he enrolled at Xavier University in New Orleans to study pharmacy. Upon graduating Xavier, he entered the U.S. Air Force and was trained in eye care - a profession that clicked for Dr. Dent. After returning from the Air Force, he enrolled in the then Pennsylvania  State College of Optometry (PSCO), renamed Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) in 1964, to earn his Doctor of Optometry degree, where he was one of two Black graduates in his class.

William Dent and Commencement Group

After graduation in 1958, he set up a private practice on Erie Avenue in Philadelphia and staked his claim as one of only 50 Black optometrists in the country at that time. “I used to tell people that there were more Catholic priests than there were Black optometrists,” he joked. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Dent was determined to make his place in the world. It became his mission to share his skill, talent, and determination with others - especially within the Black community. He co-founded an organization called “Interested Negroes” in 1960, with the purpose of mentoring young Black individuals and helping to steer them toward professional pursuits - one of which was optometry.
 
During the time he owned his practice, he also performed pro bono eye exams at the Stephen Smith Nursing Home in West Philadelphia. Always teaching that many diseases could be diagnosed through eye exams, he actually diagnosed his own mother with diabetes.
 
Just to be sure he made a big enough impact on his community, Dr. Dent moonlighted as a researcher studying Black - specific diseases, and tried to find ways to combat them. He spent the majority of his research on Sickle Cell Anemia and even won an award for his research on this topic in 1969.
 
When Dr. Dent retired from his practice in 2009, he donated his optometry equipment and optometric books to PCO. He passed away on July 4, 2017.