Donor Spotlight: Mary Lynn Morgan blazed paths as dentist, advocate, trustee

Dr. Mary Lynn Morgan

By Paige Parvin 96G

As a female dentist practicing in the 1940s, Mary Lynn Morgan had to be a rarity. Even today, women dentists number fewer than one in five, although that figure is on the rise.

Yet Morgan brushes off any acknowledgment or praise, as she does with most of her pioneering achievements. Looking back on her career, her attitude is not so much tough as graciously matter-of-fact. Was it challenging to be a female student in dental school in 1943? No. Was it hard to build a pediatric dental practice in Georgia in the 1950s? Not at all. Was it tough being the second woman to serve as an Emory trustee? Not really; it was mainly just embarrassing that Emory only had one female trustee at the time.

As a young woman, Morgan wanted to be a doctor, but her parents hesitated at the expense of medical school. So she attended Atlanta-Southern Dental College, graduating with just two other women the year before it became the Emory University School of Dentistry. She went on to serve as a part-time faculty member for more than twenty years, basically starting the pediatric dental program. She was active until the school was closed in 1990, a decision that, she says philosophically, “made good sense.”

Morgan also built a practice specializing in dentistry for children, one of the few in the Atlanta area for more than three decades. She helped to found the Georgia Society of Dentistry for Children and served as president in 1961. “I just knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she says. “The children’s behavior was more interesting. I was very happy to be a dentist.”

Although she never had children herself, Morgan took great care to understand the stages of child development in order to make her young patients comfortable at all ages. For years, she took her small dog with her to the office, letting it snuggle in the children’s laps to distract them while she tended to their teeth. Now a resident at a retirement home on Peachtree Street, she has many friends whose children were her patients and remember her care.

Morgan also was deeply involved with the leadership of Hillside, one of Atlanta’s oldest nonprofit organizations, which offers treatment to children with severe emotional, psychological, and behavioral challenges.

In 1967, she married newspaper legend Ralph McGill, who died in 1969. “That was a very happy time, but not long enough,” she says. “He was a sweet, brilliant man.”

In 1974, Morgan became the second woman to be elected an Emory trustee. “I loved doing that,” she says. “I loved being part of it and enjoyed the committee work.” Today, with eleven women, the composition of the board is “more like it ought to be,” Morgan adds.

Morgan may downplay the challenges she must have faced as a woman, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t deeply invested in the mission of the Center for Women at Emory. She is an annual donor and maintains close, personal ties with former director Ali Crown and current director Dona Yarbrough. In 1999, the center—led by Crown—established the Mary Lynn Morgan Lectures on Women and Health in her honor.

“Mary Lynn Morgan has been a pioneer and a role model for so many women that this lecture series seemed a great way to honor her,” said Crown at the time of the inaugural lecture, featuring Emory cardiac specialist Nanette Wenger. “She was one of only a handful of women in dental school at a time when women just didn’t do that; she had the only pediatric dental practice in Georgia for years, and she was deeply involved in the civil rights movement in partnership with her late husband, Ralph McGill.”

The dozen distinguished lecturers since then have included such stars as Harriett Robinson, Claire Sterk, and Julie Gerberding, and have covered topics from housing to AIDS. Morgan has not missed one, nor does she plan to. She also was featured in the Women’s Oral History Project of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 2007. She turned ninety this year.

“Women’s health has certainly improved,” Morgan says. “We have made a lot of progress. And the lectures have been truly marvelous.”

Paige P. Parvin 96G is editor of Emory Magazine and a member of the Center for Women at Emory Editorial Board.