Earl Wiley Renfroe – Colonel, United States Army

From a contemporary press report:

Dr. Earl Wiley Renfroe, 1907-2000
November 16, 2000 (written by Bill Bike)


Earl Wiley Renfroe, a history-maker in the field of orthodontics and in breaking down the barriers of racial prejudice, died Tuesday, November 14, 2000, at the age of 93.

During his more than 60 years of teaching clinical orthodontics in the Department of
Orthodontics at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry, Dr. Renfroe was acknowledged as the best hands-on clinical orthodontics instructor in the world.

With fellow faculty member Dr. Thomas K. Barber of the College's Department of Pediatric Dentistry, Dr. Renfroe wrote the research article that in 1957 created the field of preventive and interceptive orthodontics. Dr. Renfroe also is considered the “father of orthodontics” in Brazil.

In 1966, his being named head of the Department of Orthodontics made him the first
African-American to lead a department at the College.

Dr. Renfroe often broke down barriers for African Americans. He was the first acknowledged African American dentist to open an office in Chicago's downtown Loop area, and the first African-American in Illinois to be licensed as a commercial airline pilot.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, January 9, 1907, Earl Renfroe graduated from Austin O. Sexton Grammar School in 1921, and from James H. Bowen High School in 1925. At Bowen, he became the first African-American student in the school's history to attain the rank of Cadet Commander in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC).

After attending Crane Junior College, Earl Renfroe became the first student at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry to work outside the College full-time while carrying a full course load. Despite this burden, he graduated first in his class of 127 DDS degree-earning students in 1931.

In 1932, he joined the Illinois National Guard, and eventually was awarded the rank of General in 1984. In 1933, he joined the faculty of the UIC College of Dentistry, and in 1934, he became the first African-American in Illinois, and only the third in the nation, to obtain a commercial pilot's license. He later served as an inspector for the Illinois Aeronautics Commission, and is featured in an exhibit on African-Americans in aviation, “Black Wings,” at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Once on the UIC College of Dentistry faculty, he ended the practice of students being allowed to work only on patients of the same race as themselves.

In 1942, when he earned his MS degree in orthodontics from the UIC College of Dentistry, he became the first African-American in Chicago to become an orthodontist.

Dr. Renfroe served as chief of the U.S. Army's Dental Service in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, during World War II, and he remained in the U.S. Army Reserves thereafter, retiring as a Colonel in 1968.

In 1950, Dr. Renfroe opened an office downtown in Chicago's Loop, becoming not only the first African-American dentist in the Loop, but the first acknowledged African-American professional in any field in Chicago's downtown.

Dr. Renfroe was promoted to associate professor at the UIC College of Dentistry in 1953, and to full professor in 1957.

That same year, Dr. Renfroe and Dr. Thomas K. Barber, DDS, MS, professor emeritus, University of California at Los Angeles, and former professor and head, Department of Pediatric Dentistry, UIC College of Dentistry, collaborated in the seminal article on the concepts of preventive and interceptive orthodontics (Barber, T.K., and Renfroe, E. “Interceptive orthodontics for the general practitioner,” Journal of the American Dental Association, 54(3): 328-347, 1957), which
was re-published in many languages in several journals worldwide.

In the late 1950s, Dr. Renfroe began traveling abroad to lecture on orthodontics. He eventually taught in nine countries including Brazil, and was the first American dentist to be invited back to Brazil, where he is considered “the father of orthodontics,” seven times. Upon being invited to Brazil the first time, he learned Portuguese so he could teach the course in the Brazilian dentists' native language.

Dr. Renfroe also made 30 trips to Barbados, where a dental facility now is named for him.

In 1960, his landmark textbook, Technique Training in Orthodontics, was published by Edwards Bros. Inc., Ann Arbor, MI. The Brazilian army made the book required reading for dentists in 1964.

In 1966, he was named head of the Department of Orthodontics at the UIC College of Dentistry, making him the first African-American to lead a department at the College.

Edgewise, his second textbook, was published by Lea & Febiger, Philadelphia, in English in 1975, and in Japanese in 1977.

Dr. Renfroe was listed in eight published “Who's Whos,” such as Who's Who in the World, the Blue Book of London, and American Men of Science. In 1988, he was honored with the Distinguished Alumnus Award by the UIC Dental Alumni Association, and two years later, he was inducted into the Chicago Senior Citizens Hall of Fame.

His wide range of interests–particularly his hobbies of flying, amateur radio operation,
pistol and rifle marksmanship, model locomotives, and SCUBA diving–saw him active in over a dozen civic organizations. The eclectic mix included the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (which he served as vice president in 1968); the Chicago Urban League; the Chicago Natural History (now Field) Museum; the International Oceanographic Foundation; the National Conference of Christians and Jews; the National Geographic Society; the 20 Fathom (SCUBA) Club; and many more.

He also was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, Beta Boule, and the Druids societal group.

Dr. Renfroe was married to the former Hilda Forte, who died Sept. 13. He is survived by sons Earl Jr. and Stephen, and Stephen's wife Dr. Cheryl Burrus, MD; daughter Diane and her husband, Michael F. Smith; two grandchildren, Chase and Julie Renfroe; a sister, Hazel Renfroe Huggins; and many nieces and nephews. Dr. Renfroe passed away in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he had retired to live with his son, Stephen, a few years ago.

“At whatever he tried, Dr. Renfroe always proved to be the best,” said Dr. Bruce S. Graham, dean of the UIC College of Dentistry. “He was an inspirational teacher who also was a trailblazer in strengthening relations between people from different backgrounds, both in Dr. Renfroe's home city of Chicago and around the world.”

“Dr. Renfroe was a brilliant dental student, the best hands-on clinical orthodontics instructor of his time, a pilot, a soldier, a leader in the fight for racial equality, and a true gentleman,” said Dr. Richard P. Perry, former president of the Illinois State Dental Association.

Dr. Renfroe will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, with full military honors on Dec. 4. A memorial service will be held Saturday, December 16, at 10:00 a.m. at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


  • BG   US ARMY
  • DATE OF BIRTH: 01/09/1907
  • DATE OF DEATH: 11/14/2000

Read our general and most popular articles

Leave a Comment