Wells, MPH, of the University of Washington Department of Oral Health Science, said, "Her influence has extended throughout the world of dental hygiene."
Dr. Wilkins was born in Chelmsford, MA, in 1916 but grew up in nearby Tyngsborough. In 1938, she matriculated at Boston's women-only Simmons College. She originally enrolled in the nursing program but later switched to a general science major. In her senior year, one of Dr. Wilkin's professors "lectured on public health careers," Flaherty wrote. She knew little about dental hygiene but "something about it appealed to her," she continued. Almost immediately, she enrolled at the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene in Boston, receiving a certificate the following year (1939).
That same year, she took a dental hygiene position with Dr. Frank Willis in Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA. At the time, Dr. Willis had been practicing dentistry in the town for 26 years. There, she and Dr. Willis provided dental care for the town's grammar school children in a two-chair clinic in the school's attic. She has fond memories of Dr. Willis and has said she "wishes that all new dental hygiene graduates could experience practicing with a sincere, honest, and devoted dentist like Dr. Willis, and know what a 'real' dental practice can mean to a community." He was more than her employer -- he was also her mentor.
After spending six years with Dr. Willis, she decided to seek her own degree in dentistry. She told one interviewer, "I had an ambition to do more." She was accepted at Tufts Dental School and would have been the only woman in the class of 1948. The school dean, Basil Bibby, DMD, PhD, "encouraged her to defer a year, when at least one other woman would be enrolled."
Entering the program the following year, she was one of only three women who were enrolled in the program. At the time, fewer than 2% of dentists in the U.S. were women. When she told Dr. Willis she was leaving, "he was not happy," she said. "He practically blew the roof off!" He expressed the difficulty he anticipated in finding a replacement. She agreed to work at his clinic during school holidays and vacations while at Tufts.
When she graduated, "he hired a new dental hygienist within a matter of weeks," she told Flaherty. It was then she realized the wily Dr. Willis "had been giving her the opportunity to earn money for her college expenses, which she very much appreciated." Years later when reflecting on her experience with Dr. Willis, she said, "he gave me a wide background on how you can have a little practice in a little town and do a lot for a lot of people."
After graduating from Tufts, Dr. Wilkins did an internship in children's dentistry at Eastman
October 24, 2013 -- Last year Esther Wilkins, RDH, DMD, told Tufts Now interviewer Julie Flaherty, "They used to say I could find calculus that wasn't there." She is to dental hygiene what Julia Child is to French cooking. Both wrote defining books -- but Dr. Wilkins has a dental instrument named after her, the Wilkins/Tufts Explorer.
Dr. Wilkins, clinical professor “emeritus” at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, recently helped celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of dental hygiene by Dr. Alfred Fones of Bridgeport, CT. At 95 she is revered and considered the eminent expert in the field. RDH Magazine's columnist Ann-Marie DePalma called her "the hygienist's hygienist ... a remarkable woman, who has advanced the art and science of dental hygiene to its fullest degree." Norma
Dr. Esther Wilkins: The rock star of dental hygiene