Dr. Thomas Arnold and his wife, Dr. Wendi Wilson, have broken lots of ground in Berkeley.
When he began practicing in 1974, Arnold was one of very few Black dentists in the city, taking over the Grove Street practice of Dr. Bill Pittman, once the only Black dentist in the entire East Bay. When Wilson married Arnold in 1983 and joined his practice, she became the city’s first Black female dentist.
Fast forward 48 years and Arnold & Wilson have become a Berkeley institution.
Most famously, they are known for their educational outreach campaign during the 1980s and ’90s, in which Arnold dressed up as a 6-foot-tall “Dr. Happy Tooth” who handed out molar-themed comic books commissioned from DC Comics specifically for their practice.
It was an effort begun from what Arnold saw as a community need: children coming into the practice with a mouthful of cavities. Responding to that need, the couple went into elementary schools, high schools, even convalescent homes, preaching the importance of regular brushing and flossing.
“They care about their patients,” said Rosemarie Clark, which is why she’s been driving from San Francisco to Berkeley for her dental appointments with Arnold for the past 45 years. “They take a very personal interest in their patients.”
Over the course of their long careers, the couple have seen a lot of changes. When Arnold started out, white dentists would call once or twice a month asking him to take on Black patients.
“They would say, ‘Tommy, we have this patient here. Can you see him? We just can’t handle him,’” Arnold recalled. “The white dentists thought they were too good to treat Black patients. It was beneath them. It made me very sad, but I was very happy to have them as patients.”
At the time, 85% of Arnold’s customers were Black; today, that number has dwindled to 40%. While Arnold cited gentrification as a factor in the city’s changing demographics, he’s also humbled that Berkeleyans of all races and nationalities now come to him to get their cavities filled and their teeth drilled.
“The change was good,” Wilson said. “Some Black people wouldn’t even come to a Black dentist because they didn’t think we were as good as white dentists. When other people started coming, we just went on like usual. We didn’t make a big issue of it. We treat our patients with respect and family love. … That’s how Arnold & Wilson rolls.”
Arnold is the third generation in his family to have a career in medicine.
Growing up in Detroit, his father, Dr. William Arnold, was a physician, but it was his grandfather, Dr. Thomas Louis Hunter, the only Black dentist in Marshall, Texas, and one of a few in the South, who ended up having a greater impact on his career choice.
He was “very warm and friendly,” Arnold said. “I admired him, his stature and how much respect he had in the community.”
Hunter’s name appears dozens of times in archives of the city’s newspaper. He was a steward of Ebenezer Church, a major donor and supporter of a local boy scout troop for Black youth, a board member at Wiley College, a historically Black institution, and active in many other civic organizations and causes.
“My grandfather used to say, ‘Tommy, you know, I could have been the mayor of Marshall if I was white.’ That was a super big deal. He knew enough people and had a lot of influence,” but also recognized the limits of the segregated South.
Arnold also favored his grandfather’s line of work over that of his father. As a general practitioner who made house calls, Arnold’s father was often absent, responding to births, deaths and any other emergencies at any time of day. His grandfather, meanwhile, kept regular hours.
“I wanted to be like my grandfather,” he said. “I wanted to be a dentist like Papa Hunter.”
Arnold attended Fisk University, the historically Black college in Nashville his parents had attended, and dental school at Meharry Medical College, a historically Black medical school and alma mater of both his father and grandfather. After graduating, Arnold nabbed a highly competitive dental residency at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, which accepted only three residents nationally.
“That was kind of a new experience for me,” Arnold said. “It was the first time in my educational career I was taught by white instructors.”
Arnold planned on practicing in San Francisco when a friend of his father’s told him that Pittman would soon be retiring from the Berkeley practice he started in 1930, located on Grove Street, now Martin Luther King Jr. Way, near the corner of Ashby Avenue.
Pittman’s wife was the Berkeley civil rights activist Tarea Hall Pittman, a radio host and leader of the NAACP who helped Black Southerners migrating to the Bay Area and organized protests to force Kaiser Shipyards to hire African Americans during World War II. In 2017, the Berkeley Public Library renamed the South Branch Library on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in her honor. It stands across the street from her husband’s former dental practice.
“There is a lot of history in this location, and what happened here with Dr. Pittman, Tarea Pittman and myself,” Arnold said. “Now that the whole neighborhood has changed, it’s important for us not to lose that history.”
Arnold said he was inspired by the couple’s close ties to the Black community and Tarea Hall Pittman’s activism. She was one of many elders who advised him along the way.
“She told me, ‘You have to realize your own personal assets and learn how to flaunt them. That will help you to be successful.’” Arnold already knew what his assets were, but had never thought about them in such terms. “I was smart. And people seemed to like my personality,” he said. “So I decided to flaunt those things.”
Around the same time Arnold took over Pittman’s practice, Wilson, meanwhile, was practicing dentistry in Los Angeles, where she had moved in 1977.
Wilson’s path to dentistry was inspired by the family dentist, Dr. William J. Polk, one of two Tuskegee airmen in her hometown of Carsondale, a small community in Lanham, Maryland, created for Black veterans returning from World War II.
“It was a very close-knit community,” Wilson said. While visiting one Christmas, Dr. Polk noticed her doing a paint-by-numbers and observed, “Oh, you have the hands of a dentist,’” Wilson remembered.
As a junior and senior in high school, she spent summers and weekends working as an assistant in his office, located in the lower level of his house. She discovered that she had an affinity for the work.
“What I liked most was working with people,” she said. “I just felt honored for him to have me work in his office. I think he had a plan for me.”
She gave Polk’s plan more serious thought years later, as an undergraduate at Howard University trying to determine her major. Chemistry became her minor.
“When it was time for me to decide what to do, I said, ‘I don’t know if I’ll make it—I didn’t think I was smart enough, frankly—but at least I’ll try.’”
She ended up staying at Howard for dental school, too, graduating in 1977.
The couple met in 1982, while both were acting as examiners for the California State Dental Board.
“Everybody had to stand up and introduce themselves,” she said. When Arnold heard Wilson’s Southern drawl and her mention of degrees from Howard, he realized she was Black and started passing notes to her.
“He’s slick,” Wilson said, chuckling. In the same way he can calmly describe a necessary dental procedure, he eventually won her over with his smooth rational approach — and charm. “Before you knew it, we were married a year later and practicing together for 38 years. We did all of this while raising three beautiful children.”
While Arnold has often been the one in the spotlight, Wilson has worked behind the scenes, running the business, in addition to practicing dentistry. She’s retired now, but still involved.
“I am a big part of this practice,” she said. “For 20 years, I was office manager, manager of the building and practiced four days a week.”
Arnold agreed: “Without her, there is no way we would have been as successful as we are.”
Dr. Happy Tooth
In the 1980s, Arnold came up with the Dr. Happy Tooth character because “he wanted to do it in a way that would be fun and kids wouldn’t be afraid,” Tucker said.
At first, Arnold donned the molar costume and Dr. Wilson acted as the instructor. There was even a “Dr. Happy Tooth Slide” done to the “Dr. Happy Tooth Rap.”
“The kids loved it,” Wilson said, “hugging him and almost knocking him over.”
Within a few years, however, “It got to be too much. We had someone else wear the costume and we both instructed,” said Wilson.
The couple continued such outreach into the 1990s, racking up press and accolades along the way. The columnists Herb Cane at the San Francisco Chronicle and Martin Snapp of the Oakland Tribune wrote about them, along with The Wall Street Journal. Both the American Dental Association’s national and state organizations recognized their educational efforts. Oakland even issued a proclamation creating a Dr. Happy Tooth Day.
“He didn’t do it to get exposure and get more patients and make more money,” Tucker said. “It was created from the heart.”
In 1991, when the Oakland Hills burned and the couple was forced to evacuate their home, their daughter, Ashley, told them to grab the Dr. Happy Tooth costume out of the garage since an event was coming up. The costume ended up being the only thing the family saved. Their house burned to the ground. It took almost two years to rebuild.
Rooted in the community
Practicing now for almost 50 years in the same location, Arnold & Wilson have witnessed tremendous growth and changes in their practice and the city overall.
The practice has more than tripled since Arnold first took over from Pittman and physically expanded from one examination room to four, into what used to be a garage.
The staff has grown, too, and now includes Dr. Daniel Chen, who joined the practice in 2020, two hygienists and three assistants. The couple’s daughter, who is an artist, is one of three office workers.
Though she remains active on the business side, Wilson still misses the long relationships she developed with her patients.
“We were family,” she said. She retired from practicing dentistry in 2018.
Rosemarie Clark considers herself part of that family. Her husband, a retired surgeon, met Arnold at Meharry Medical College. Both graduated in 1972.
“Dr. Arnold’s always so calm,” Clark said. “He’ll say, ‘Just come in and we’ll take care of it. It’ll be OK.’”
Recently, when she learned she needed a dental implant, she was so afraid of the process, it took her six months to decide. She was surprised to discover that Arnold would accompany her to the appointment with the specialist.
“It let the referral doctor know that this patient is special and that he was doing the warm handoff,” she said. “And I wasn’t the only one. When I was leaving I saw two other of Dr. Arnold’s patients there. No other dentist does that. That’s what he offers to the community.”
Correction: A previous version of this story and its headline incorrectly stated that Dr. Arnold Wilson was once the only Black dentist in Berkeley. At the time Wilson opened his practice in 1974, Dr. J.D. Saddler was practicing on Alcatraz Avenue. Saddler’s son, Dr. Phillip H. Saddler, took over his father’s Berkeley dental practice more than 25 years ago.
Joanne Furio moved to Berkeley because it has sidewalks. She specializes in design in all its incarnations, innovation and the arts.