James B. Bean was perhaps the single most important dental surgeon of the Civil War. Born in Washington County, June 19, 1834, James Bean could trace his heritage to the first white settlers of the state. He was the great-grandson of William and Lydia Bean, grandson of Russell Bean, and son of Robert and Mary Hunter Bean. Since Dr. Bean practiced dentistry in other states, left no direct heirs, died on Mont Blanc and was buried in Chamonix, France, his brilliant dental accomplishments during the Civil War have largely escaped the attention of his own state.
Bean attended Washington College Academy, studied medicine, and later practiced in Micanopy, Florida, where he also collected many wildlife and ornithological specimens for the Smithsonian Institution. He received his dental degree from Baltimore College of Dental Surgery in 1860 and married Hester M. Bovell, daughter of Dr. William W. Bovell, in Jonesborough, on October 30 of that year. After the outbreak of the Civil War, Bean moved to Atlanta, where he offered his services to the Confederate medical authorities. His dental device, the “Bean splint,” allowed him to treat successfully over one hundred cases of gunshot wounds to the jaw and face while preventing the facial disfigurement and deformity that frequently resulted from such wounds. In January 1865 the Confederate Medical Board in Richmond, Virginia, unanimously recommended adoption of the Bean splint. Bean supervised Richmond dental surgeons in the use of his device.
After the war, Bean established a dental practice in Baltimore. He pioneered in the use of aluminum for dental plates and in 1867 took out a patent for an aluminum denture base. Although his painstaking experiments were not successful, Bean's method of casting aluminum plates was an important step in the development of the casting process in dentistry.
Bean died in 1870 at the age of thirty-six, when he and ten others were caught in a blizzard on the summit of Mont Blanc. Bean's notebook, recovered on his body, recorded his last hours as he froze to death. Mark Twain included extracts from the notebook in A Tramp Abroad (1879).