Meet Tempe’s Pioneering Female Dentist Nancy Robinson

(photo courtesy of Nancy Robinson)

By Jessica Swarner

April 10, 2023

“There were men [who] referred to me as ‘sweetie’ or something like that,” Robinson said. “And I just calmly sat them up and took the bib off, and I said, ‘You need to find another dentist. I don’t feel comfortable treating you.’” 

Tempe native Dr. Nancy Robinson was interested in dental hygiene all the way back in seventh grade, when she wrote a career paper about the field for class at McKemy Junior High. 

After high school, she “did a little stint” at dental assistant school in San Diego. But when she got a job working for a boss she describes as “angry,” she started thinking about what it’d be like if she were in charge.

“So I thought, well, why should I go to school for just two years when you just clean teeth, when I could go to school for four and be the boss?” Robinson told The Copper Courier. 

She got accepted  to the dental school at Washington University in St. Louis, where she had family nearby. Of the about 85 people in her class, she said, eight were women.  

“There were a couple of guys in my class who actually said to one of my girlfriends that he really resented her being in this class, that she took the place of a man or a guy—or in other words, that we as women weren’t going to take the profession as seriously,” Robinson said. “A couple women dropped out, but all in all, it was a blast.” 

On Her Own

In 1985, Robinson moved back to Tempe and began looking for a job. While having lunch with a dentist whose practice she was considering joining, Robinson became aware of an unexpected hurdle: 

“[He] told me that he didn’t think that it would work out for me to be his associate because he was married, and that could be a problem,” Robinson said. “I went home and I thought about that. I thought, ‘You pig, you really think that you have a chance with me, that I would touch you with a 10-foot pole whether you were married or not?’”

She ended up joining the practice of her childhood dentist. 

A 1985 Arizona Republic article profiling Dr. Nancy Robinson.

“I really loved that guy, he was a great dentist and a really great man,” she said. “But in hindsight, I was kind of like the token weird anomaly: ‘Look at little Nancy, she’s a dentist now.’”

After an orthodontist asked her if she’d considered opening her own practice, Robinson went to Rio Salado Bank to ask for a loan—a scary experience, she said, for a woman who had only been a dentist for a few years and had recently gotten divorced. 

But she left with a $50,000 loan and worked with her mom to get her office near Southern Avenue and Price Road ready to open in 1987. 

“My mom and I tore out the carpet in this office, and we painted the whole inside,” she said. “I took pictures off of my walls of my apartment … We bought furniture from swap meets and upholstered the furniture.”

Robinson said she had enough money to buy two chairs for two patient rooms, and she started out cleaning patients’ teeth herself to avoid having to pay a hygienist. Her mom worked as the receptionist. 

Robinson also had a do-it-yourself approach to marketing. She and two other female dentists in Mesa took out a Yellow Pages ad together to save money. She also got a mailing list of homeowners in the area and sent them letters introducing herself and her office. 

“I hand-addressed all those envelopes, because I didn’t want to use a sticker,” she said. “I thought that would look like junk mail.” 

Working Relationships

Robinson said as she worked in Tempe while raising two kids, other dentists were kind to her, but she knew she would never be “part of the foursome golfing or that kind of a thing.” 

“I just needed to take care of my patients and just give up trying to be in that club,” she said. 

She also had to weed out some patients to make sure she could comfortably do her job—an act she called “empowering.” 

“There were men [who] referred to me as ‘sweetie’ or something like that,” Robinson said. “And I just calmly sat them up and took the bib off, and I said, ‘You need to find another dentist. I don’t feel comfortable treating you.’” 

She said she worked especially well with people who were afraid of going to the dentist. She remembered one woman who, at her first visit, just sat and talked with Robinson in the waiting room. At her next visit, she and Robinson went back to an exam room, but the woman wouldn’t let Robinson look in her mouth. Eventually, she allowed Robinson to clean her teeth. Robinson remained the woman’s dentist for the rest of her life. 

“It wasn’t just the idea of just fixing a tooth, but the relationship that you had with the people that were connected to them,” Robinson said. 

Passing It On

After nearly 40 years of practicing dentistry, Robinson decided to retire in 2019 for a couple of reasons. One was that she was experiencing severe back and neck pain that made it hard to do her job. 

And the other was that she needed to increase her fees, but the way that things worked with insurance companies meant that uninsured people would be the only ones having to pay more—”There was no way I was going to do that,” she said. 

A portion of a letter Dr. Nancy Robinson sent to her patients after selling her practice to Dr. Theresa Collins.

She ended up contacting a broker who introduced her to another female dentist: Dr. Theresa Collins. 

“I knew I only wanted to sell it to a woman,” Robinson said. 

“Thank God I went to dental school,” she said. “It was the best thing I ever did.”

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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