Boston civil rights Attorney Butler R. Wilson described him as “one of the most competent and best known dentists among the younger members of the profession.” But Black dentist Dr. George Franklin Grant was not just a popular dentist, he was also an inventor. He created and patented the oblate palate, a prosthetic device used in the realignment of cleft palates for patients to speak more normally.
And being an avid golfer, Grant, in 1899, invented and patented a golf tee out of frustration. The golf tee is the little piece of equipment that raises the golf ball off the ground when playing the first stroke of a hole from the teeing ground. In other words, Grant’s invention allowed golfers to have more control of their clubs and the speed and direction of their drives. Yet, it took almost a century for the late 19th-century Boston dentist who also made history at Harvard to get credit for his invention.
Born in Oswego, New York to former slaves in 1847, Grant started an apprenticeship in dentistry under local dentist Dr. Albert Smith at age 15. He worked as his errand boy before becoming an assistant in his lab. When Grant was 19, he traveled to Boston where he first found work as a dental assistant and eventually gained admission to the new Harvard Dental School two years later.
In 1870, the same year that Richard Theodore Greener became the first Black graduate of Harvard College, Grant graduated from Harvard Dental School with honors, becoming the second African-American graduate of the Dental School. The first was Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman, who graduated from the Dental School the previous year.
After Grant’s graduation, the Dental School hired him, becoming its first Black faculty member. He stayed at the Dental School for years, specializing in his work with patients with defects on the roofs of their mouths. Historians note that Grant formed individual inserts for those with cleft palates, and these really helped people who found it difficult to speak and eat. By 1889, he had treated 115 cases. Thanks to his work including his patented oblate palate, he became popular in the dental community both in the U.S. and across the world and would later leave Harvard to start his own practice.
Grant, meanwhile, was a founding member and president of the Harvard Odontological Society and was elected President of the Harvard Dental Association in 1881. During this period, he had fallen in love with golf. He built a meadow course next to his country home in the Boston suburb of Arlington Heights and even when his family relocated to Beacon Hill, Grant often came back to Arlington to play golf.
He and his playing partners were, according to history, among the first African-American golfers in post-Civil War America. They were praised in Boston for the game. But Grant always felt something was missing in the game, especially when trying to tee off.
“The process of teeing the ball up involved pinching moist sand to fashion a tee. Doing that 18 times a round was enough to annoy Dr. Grant, so he came up with an invention that would forever have an impact,” Ivy League’s Black History writes. According to BlackPast, he “invented a golf tee whittled from wood and capped with gutta-percha, a latex resin used in dentistry for root canals.”
On December 12, 1899, Grant received U.S. patent No. 638,920, the world’s first patent for a golf tee. But Grant never marketed his innovation. He had the golf tees made locally and gave some of them to his playing partners and friends. At the time of his death in 1910, many of the golf tees were left in his home, his daughter, Frances, shared with Ivy League’s Black History.
But since Grant’s invention didn’t reach a wider audience, he was not recognized for it for decades. In 1921, another dentist from Maplewood, New Jersey, known as Dr. William Lowell, popularized the tee by manufacturing the ‘reddy tee,’ which was painted red.
Then in 1991, almost a century after Grant’s patent, the United States Golf Association finally recognized him for his contribution to the game of golf.