Italian Honey Bees to Dental Floss

Parmly postcards

Thankfully, there is no cure for curiosity…

The mildewed cardboard box, stuffed with old papers, turned into a rabbit hole leading to a surprising discovery: a families rich history of medical service that affected the well-being of millions of people.

In the box was a scattering of one cent postcards, most were from 1883, all addressed to Dr. Ehrick Parmly, 19 West 38th Street, NYC. There was nothing extraordinary about their messages. They contain a mixture of personal conversations – “Dear Father, We shall go & see Dr. Miller to night & shall tell you about his health…” and professional correspondence – “Rec’d of Ehrick Parmly one dollar & eighty eight cents on lease land rent…” some written in a hurried scribble, others with a thoughtful elegance: all typical of postcards of the era.

writing samples

 The cards would have been filed away with the rest of my collection if it weren’t for a curious postmark-like imprint on one of them. On the bottom right corner of this particular card was a red circular imprint reading – Wm W. Cary Jr., Colerain, Mass, Breeder of Italian Bees & Manufacturer of Apiarian Supplies. The idea of “Italian” bees’s peaked my curiosity.  A GOOGLE search – Dr. Ehrick Parmly + bee’s – led to the American Bee Journal, where the doctor contributed numerous articles. As a passionate beekeeper, he was deeply involved in the industry and acted as an evangelist, traveling throughout the country collecting information of new techniques to pass along to other breeders. Reading the accounts of his travels, by horseback or wagon, throughout New Jersey, New York, Ohio and eastern Canada was interesting enough, but nothing compared to other discoveries about Dr. Parmly and his family.

Italian bees

 The real story doesn’t have anything to do with bee’s, it has to do with teeth. Dr. Ehrick Parmly was a dentist, as was his father, his three uncles, and six cousins. The Parmly family was knee deep in teeth. When Ehrick’s father, Dr. Eleazar Parmly and uncle, Dr. Levi Spear Parmly began their dental careers in the early 1800’s, dentistry was little more than ‘yank and plug’. Rotten teeth were yanked out, the gap plugged with bovine, or if the patient was lucky enough, a human tooth  – harvested from a cadaver.

The Drs. Parmly were determined to elevate dentistry into science. Traveling throughout the United States and Europe, they met with other dental practitioners looking for new techniques and procedures. The reputation of their skills and advanced techniques grew. While in England they even established a successful practice that included as a patient, Sir Anthony Carlisle, physician to His Majesty King George IV.

Returning to the United States in 1823, Eleazar established his practice in New York City and continued to perfect techniques and invent medical instruments for oral surgery. He and Levi were the first dentists in America to teach “the corrosive action of acids” as a cause of tooth decay. They were also the first to advocate regular dental exams for children.

Dr. Eleazar Parmly was a founder of the American Society of Dental Surgeons and instrumental in establishing the first dental college in the United States. He was also violently against the then common practice of using mercury in fillings and fought to have its use stopped. Dr. Levi Spear Parmly, considered the Father of Dental Hygiene, introduced flossing with silk thread (in 1815) as a way to prevent dental disease.

Upon his retirement, Dr. Eleazar Parmly enjoyed the company of Robert and Elizabeth Browning, was close friends with Abraham Lincoln and had visited with Napoleon III and Pope Pius IX. He died in 1874 and is buried in Monmouth County NJ. His brother Levi Spear died in 1859 and is buried in France. The Parmly dental dynasty was global, with family members practicing dentistry in New York City, Mobile, New Orleans, St. Louis, Paris, Rome and London.


Dr. Ehrick Parmly, our postcard recipient’s father, and uncle, were perhaps, the most famous doctors in the United States at the time. Following in his families history, Ehrick Parmly had a successful dental practice in New York City. And in retirement an active career managing his farm, breeding cattle, and of course, bee’s. He died in 1902 and is buried in Rumson N.J.

There you have it. From a stack of discarded postcards I was able to peek into a families history and maybe give Dr. Ehrick Parmly’s father, and uncle, some well deserved publicity.

…only temporary relief of its symptoms.



Subscribe to our e-mail newsletter to receive updates.

, , , , , ,

7 Responses to Italian Honey Bees to Dental Floss

  1. Staci Troilo July 22, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

    Fascinating history! Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • Bart Ingraldi July 22, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

      Thanks for the kind words. What can be found in the simplest items never ceases to amaze me.

  2. the muscleheaded blog August 9, 2013 at 4:27 am #

    It’s those little details that makes stuff interesting — well done post!!!

    • Bart Ingraldi August 9, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

      Thanks. Quirky bits of information like this spice up my life.

  3. Megan Sullivan October 10, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    Wow, Bart, this is an amazing story especially since I have been friends with the John Parmly family in Rumson for almost 50 years. The reason I found your site is that the Parmly family donated the dental tools of Eleazar Parmly to the Smithsonian in D.C. yesterday. When my mom mentioned the donation that was made, I decided to find out more. What a great story! Have you been in contact with the family? Regards, Megan

  4. Megan Sullivan October 10, 2014 at 4:41 pm #

    This is an amazing story. I have been friends with the Parmly family in Rumson for almost 50 years. The reason I found your (great) site is that my mother mentioned that the Parmly family donated Eleazar’s dental tools to the Smithsonian in D.C. yesterday. You tell a great story. Have the Parmly’s ever been in touch with you? Megan Sullivan

    • Bart Ingraldi October 13, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

      Thanks for your kind words, it is an incredible story and I’m glad you enjoyed it. No, I haven’t had the privilege of being contacted by the family.
      All the best,

Thanks for taking the time to write