The Charleston Ottolengui

The Charleston Ottolengui


Unfortunately, we have not been able to establish a link to the Charleston Ottolengui, so I’m going to give that a rest for a while and wait for something to turn up as it usually does sooner or later.
This then will be the last of my Charleston Ottolengui stories………….for the time being, at least.


Orthodontist, lepidopterist, editor, novelist. Benjamin Adolph Rodrigues Ottolengui MDS, DDS, LLD, FACD, was born in Charleston four weeks before the outbreak of the Civil War, on 15th March 1861. (Incidentally South Carolina was the first state to secede.) He was the second of three children born to Daniel Ottolengui (grandson of Mordecai Ottolengui the founder of the Charleston dynasty) a newspaperman and dramatist, and Helen Rosalie Rodriguez, an author. His maternal grandfather Benjamin Adolph Rodrigues was a pioneer dentist who had played an important part in establishing dentistry in South Carolina.

Known to friends simply as “Rod”, Rodrigues Ottolengui attended the College of Charleston but moved to New York City in 1877, only just 16 years old, to serve an apprenticeship under the dentist Dr. J. Albert Kimball. He obtained a master’s degree in dental surgery from the Regents of the State of New York in 1885. He then practiced dentistry in the office of Dr. William A. Atkinson, “dean” of the dental profession. He served another apprenticeship with Dr. Norman Kingsley, who tutored him in cleft palate. As Kingsley’s protégé, Rodrigues Ottolengui became interested in orthodontics and began writing articles on “regulating” teeth in 1892. He made substantial contributions to pulp canal therapy and cleft palate restoration and was a pioneer in the dental use X-rays.

Rodrigues Ottolengui was the leading dental editor of the early 20th century and guided specialist orthodontics during its formative years. Neither Angle-trained (Edward Hartley Angle “Father of American Dentistry”) nor a specialist, Ottolengui’s heritage was both in dentistry and literature, and he was to follow both those legacies with distinction. He authored a dental text, Methods of Filling Teeth; a chapter on malocclusion in Fones’s Textbook for Dental Hygienists; and a collection of dental writings published under the title Table Talks on Dentistry. He was a dental editor for almost forty years, starting in 1896 with Items of Interest, a periodical (later Dental Items of Interest). He enlarged it into a journal and inaugurated a department of orthodontics, which he illustrated with drawings of classical figures from mythology. He also published the proceedings of the American Society of Orthodontists from 1901 to 1920 until it was taken over by the International Journal of Orthodontia. He was a crusader for regulation in the dental profession and by the introduction of legislation, Ottolengui helped eliminate charlatans, quacks, and other illegal practitioners from New York City.  He was president of the original Brooklyn Dental Society; the Second District Dental Society; and the Dental Society of New York. He was made a member of the Odontographic Society of France and the Dental Society of Denmark; an honorary Doctor of Dental Surgery at Creighton University; an honorary LLD at Valparaiso University; and a fellow of the American College of Dentists.

An almost obsessive reader of detective stories, Rod Ottolengui was not only a pioneer in forensic dentistry but author of at least 30 publications including 27 mystery novels and short stories as well as many articles on dentistry. The SATURDAY REVIEW OF LITERATURE called Ottolengui “the dental counterpart… of England’s physician crime solver, Dr (Sir Arthur) Conan Doyle. (creator of Sherlock Holmes)” The literary figure Ellery Queen dubbed Ottolengui “one of the most neglected authors in the entire history of the detective story.” (Ellery Queen was actually the pen name created in 1929 by crime fiction writers Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee and the name of their main fictional character, a mystery writer in New York City who helps his police inspector father solve baffling murders). Rod’s first mystery, An Artist in Crime (1893), was also published in England, and translated for publication in France, Poland, and Germany. His next book, A Conflict of Evidence (1893), was followed by A Modern Wizard (1894), which was brought to the attention of the Pasteur Institute because of the possibility advanced in the story that some forms of insanity were traceable to microorganisms. He also wrote The Crime of the Century (1896) and Final Proof: Or the Value of Evidence (1898).

Rodrigues Ottolengui’s hobbies included taxidermy and photography. A member of the New York Camera Club, he gained recognition for his pinpoint prints of landscapes and Rembrandt-style portraits.

He was a charter member of the New York Entomological Society. His interest in the family of noctuid moths, the plusiide (plusiae), led him to become the leading authority in the United States on this group. (Plusia moths are particularly destructive pests active at night, but their larvae (caterpillars) usually feed during the day on the leaves and shoots of onions, peppers, beans, potatoes, beets, alfalfa, aromatic herbs such as basil, mint, etc.) His specimen collection outnumbered those in the British Museum and in Washington.  In 1913 he wrote a monograph on every North American species of plusiae, describing fourteen new species and illustrating them with his own photographs. The American Museum of Natural History allotted his collection special space and labelled it “The Ottolengui Collection.”

Rodrigues Ottolengui was awarded several honorary doctorates. His wife, May Hall Ottolengui, died on 10th July 1936. Rodrigues Ottolengui died of a heart ailment and a stroke after a long illness in New York City on July 11, 1937.

“Rod” Ottolengui’s death in 1937 stimulated numerous testimonials from the dental profession. He had helped shape the future of American dentistry, but also contributed in no small way, as one writer put it, “to the growth of the lusty infant, orthodontia. His memory will linger, and his important influence will be felt for all in both dentistry and orthodontia.”

By bryanell2020

Occasional genealogist and full-time Ottolangui family historian. 8th generation descendant of the 17th century Ottolenghi family of Livorno, born in London, graduated in Birmingham, lived around the United Kingdom, Israel, and in Rome, Italy. For a short while in Buenos Aires, and currently residing in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic where I have been since 2005.

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