On a Jocular Dentist

It’s not as funny as he thinks it is when your jocular dentist smilingly sighs and says, “I think I need to build you a bridge, Mr. Wood. Wood. Bridge. A wooden bridge!“

Cedar Rapids, Iowa is about as American as you can get. Corn country this is. The home of hard-working, no nonsense, straight forward American stock. Dr. Byron McKeeby had a dental practice there about 100 years ago. The good doctor grew up in the hawkeye state. He was proud of the fact that he was in the first graduating class of the University of Iowa‘s dental school back in the late 1800s. 

By all accounts, Dr McKeeby had a good sense of humor and counted many of his patients among his friends. Known for his sartorial refinement as well as his jokes, Dr. McKeeby also made it a point to be on the front lines of new technology. In his almost 50 year practice in Cedar Rapids, Dr. McKeeby took a quiet pride in bringing the first dental x-ray machine to the city. 

From his reclined position in the dental chair, Mr. Wood said, “I’ve been thinking, doc. I have a little project I’d like you to help me with.“ And as the dental procedures continued, Mr. Wood outlined to Dr. McKeeby exactly what he had in mind and how the dentist could help him.

“I don’t know,“ the dentist replied, suddenly becoming serious. He packed Mr. Wood’s mouth in the space where the bridge would go. “I’ve never done anything like that before.“ 

“I promith ya, doc,“ Mr. Wood said through the gauze, “no one will ever know that it wath you.“

We now know that Mr. Wood could not have been more wrong. The world knows exactly who Dr. McKeeby is, and the reason we know is precisely because of the project with which he eventually and reluctantly agreed to assist Mr. Wood.

You see, Mr. Wood was an artist. He wanted Dr. McKeeby to be a model the painting he was working on. The other person in the work was to be Mr. Wood‘s sister, a woman who was also a patient of Dr. McKeeby’s. The two of them were to stand in front of a house, a simple Iowa farmhouse. For years, Dr. McKeeby denied he was part of the work, but, no, there is no mistake about it. His face has become for many the prototypical Iowan and American visage. In fact, it is so important symbolically that we might even refer to it as an icon.

And so, Dr. McKeeby, convinced to stand with Mr. Wood’s sister and hold a pitchfork, and to wear, uncharacteristically, a pair of overalls and an equally uncharacteristic dour expression, is forever immortalized in a painting that you have seen your whole life.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic.


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