BERKELEY, Calif. (KRON) – It’s not every day you get your teeth checked by a Bay Area legend.
Berkeley-based dentist, Dr. Thomas Arnold has spent nearly 50 years teaching his patients proper oral hygiene.
With a constant smile on his face and round-the-clock energy, he has surely made his mark on the Bay Area.
KRON4’s Noelle Bellow found out he’s carrying on a rare legacy started by his grandfather.
“I wanted to create something that relieved fear and anxiety about coming to see the dentist.”
Dr. Thomas Arnold is also known as “Dr. Happy Tooth.”
Dr. Arnold and his wife and partner Dr. Wendi Wilson created the “Dr. Happy Tooth” character in the late ’80s.
Together they visited schools dressed as a six-foot molar armed with a smile and a toothbrush and floss. They taught kids how to combat cavities and dental decay, even passing out a comic book they created.
“I put a lot of time into it and energy in it. Hopefully, it did some good.”
“Dr. Happy Tooth” was a big hit through the ’90s. Dr. Arnold has received numerous awards and recognition over the years.
And though he doesn’t don the costume anymore, relieving patients’ fears is still his daily practice.
“In 2024 it will be 50 years since I’ve practiced dentistry in the Bay Area.”
He’s been in the same location the entire time.
In fact, the office located on Martin Luther King Junior Way in Berkeley was originally run by Dr. William Pittman, the very first Black dentist to open a practice in the East Bay back in 1930.
“It used to be called Grove street. Grove street was the color line where all the Black folks lived on this side, and the white folks lived on the other side.”
Dr. Pittman practiced there for almost 50 years too, so a dentist has been in this same location for almost 100 years.
Having a Black dentist to look up to wasn’t new for Dr. Arnold though. His passion for the career started when he was just a young boy visiting his grandfather, Dr. Thomas Louis Hunter, one of the first Black dentists in the South.
“I just kind of knew this is what I wanted to do.I saw the respect people gave him. The kind of work he did. I just always wanted to be like papa hunter.”
In fact, Dr. Arnold is a third-generation medical professional. He, his grandfather, and his father, who was a medical doctor all attended Meharry Medical College in Nashville.
In the Black community that was very very different during those times.
“We weren’t accepted into the larger white schools. We had to go to Meharry for dentistry or medicine or Howard university for dentistry or medicine.”
He said being among other black teachers and students was a nice comfort zone, but in 1972 he’d get an offer to embark on a new path after being one of just three graduates accepted into the dental residency program at Mount Zion in San Francisco.
“When I got accepted, all my classmates were jealous.”
And while his acceptance was impressive, it also brought on a new challenge because, for the first time, Dr. Arnold was learning from and alongside people of a different race.
“I felt insecure for about a week and then I thought ‘oh shoot.. they don’t know any more than I know! So, I kind of went on from there.”
When asked about his biggest lesson learned, Dr. Arnold said “nobody was any better than me. I was just as good as anybody else, being a Black man.”
Now, nearly 78 years old, Dr. Arnold is still practicing with pride and a smile educating his patients and paving the way for the next generation of dentists.
I kind of look at myself as being a great grandfather in dentistry being a Black dentist working alongside a diverse group of dental hygienists.
Doctor Arnold has no plans to retire soon, but he hopes if and when he does his dental office will continue to serve the community for decades to come.
“I just want this whole area to remember they have good dentists in their neighborhood that they can go see.”