The year was 1870. Napoleon III and his troops had just surrendered to the Prussians in the Battle of Sedan. As news of the emperor’s capture spread, mobs formed in Paris, aiming to dismantle the old government and form a new one. The life of Napoleon’s wife, Empress Eugenie, was in danger. Thankfully for Eugenie, a trusted confidant formed a plan to spirit her out of the Tuileries palace to safety in England. That confidant? Her dentist, Thomas W. Evans, the School of Dental Medicine’s earliest benefactor.
Fast-forward nearly a century and a half. The carriage Evans used to ferry the Empress to safety is now making a return from France to the School of Dental Medicine and is being restored to its former glory. It will be on display from May 11 through June in the school’s Robert Schattner Center, and will return this fall to be permanently displayed at the school.
Evans was born in West Philadelphia and was known as an innovative and skillful dentist. He moved to Paris in 1847 and lived there for decades, becoming the dentist of the most well-connected and wealthy members of society, including many royals. His clients included the Emperor and Empress, with whom he became close friends. He died in 1897, and willed land and funds to construct the Thomas Evans Building, the flagship building of Penn’s Dental School. The building marks its 100th anniversary this year.
“Evans was the most influential dentist of the 19th century,” says Denis Kinane, dean of Penn Dental Medicine. “In the past, dentists were seen as charlatans and rogues. He elevated the profession to be a respected subspecialty of medicine.”
This is not the first time Evans’ carriage has found a home at Penn. It was displayed at the school for several decades in the Evans Museum, along with other objects and art from Evans’ impressive collection. Since the 1990s, the carriage has been on loan to France’s Réuion des Musées Nationaux. Most recently, it was held at the Château de Compiègne, where Kinane and his family visited in December of 2013.
“My family didn’t know at the time but we were there to see the carriage,” Kinane says. “I was able to convince the curator to allow us to take the carriage back to its home here at the school.”
The luxurious carriage was “a Rolls Royce of its time,” according to Kinane. Its low shell allowed onlookers a maximized view of the occupants. Its intricate lamps shed light more than 200 feet upon the road ahead. The carriage has been undergoing extensive restoration by an Amish carriage business in Lancaster County, funded by a personal gift from Kinane.
The exterior restoration work will be completed next week, and Penn Dental Medicine is hosting a celebration to mark the return of the carriage on Monday, May 11, from 1 to 2 p.m. in the Robert Schattner Center, 240 S. 40th St. The event is open to the Penn community.
“There is so much history attached to this object and attached to the school,” Kinane says. “I love history and have a great respect for it, and I hope seeing this part of history on display deepens the community’s pride in our school.”