Dr. Esther Wilkins: The rock star of dental hygiene
Earlier this year, she was awarded the prestigious International College of Dentists (ICD) Distinguished Service Award. ICD Vice President Joseph Kenneally, DMD, presented her the award. Thirty years earlier, Dr. Kenneally had been one of her students at Tufts.
"I spoke for a few minutes describing her career and why she was being presented the award," he said. She's 96 and hard of hearing, he explained. "She looked at me and finally said, 'Are you done?' She then proceeded to deliver a 20 minute off-the-cuff speech about herself and the changes she had seen in her some 60 years in dentistry." He said she was really entertaining and funny, and the applause from the assembled guests was spontaneous and genuine. "She thanked us, grabbed her walker, and went back to her table," he said. He called her "The Rock Star of Dental Hygiene," adding "I've seen groups of hygienists queue up with their textbooks to get her autograph."
Dr. Wilkin's impact on dentistry and dental hygiene goes without saying. She told one interviewer she "has always been a rigid teacher, particularly in the clinic." Dr. Kenneally remembers with fondness that once, as a student, "she grabbed me by the back of my clinic jacket and said, "Young man, if you continue to sit like that you won't last 10 years," referring to his posture. Josh Hammer, DMD, also a former student who now practices in Northern California, remembers an instrument-sharpening class Dr. Wilkins presided over. "She had an eagle eye on each of us and passionately corrected us if we were sharpening our instruments at the wrong angle," he said. "She wanted everything perfect."
Unlike the majority of us who look forward to retirement, the thought of leaving her profession never entered Dr. Wilkins's head. Like the Eveready Bunny, she keeps going and going and going (albeit with a walker and cane).
Daniel Demers is a semiretired businessman whose hobby is researching and writing about 19th and 20th century historical events and personalities. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from George Washington University and a master's degree in business from Chapman University.
Continued from Page 1
Continued Page 3
Dental Dispensary in Rochester, NY. The dispensary, funded by Kodak founder George Eastman, provided free dental services to the town's indigent children. Shortly after completing her internship, she was asked by the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle to set up a dental hygiene program from scratch.
At UW, she found that the existing schoolbooks were outdated. Little had been written exclusively on the subject of dental hygiene since Dr. Fones published a textbook on the subject, and by then it was out of date. She began writing her own text on specialty subjects within the discipline, which she distributed to students as mimeographed handouts.
At UW, Dr. Wilkins taught most of the classes herself. By 1959, she had a pile of the mimeographed lessons, and according to Flaherty, Dr. Wilkins told her "one day a textbook salesman making his usual rounds spied the thick stack on her desk. He asked to take a look. 'We should publish this,' he said. 'Can you have it ready for fall.' " Soon, the bible of dental hygiene textbooks, Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist, was born. The text is now in its 11th edition.
After a dozen years at UW, she opted to return to Tufts for postgraduate study in periodontics. It was there that she rekindled a friendship with a former classmate, George Gallagher, DMD. The friendship turned to love, with the subject of marriage coming up more and more frequently. At first she resisted his proposal, claiming the tedious and time-consuming work on her book was ongoing and was, in her words, "a full-time job." Then she was working on the third edition. Finally, she relented when he told her, "Well, I guess I could put up with it," she told Flaherty. In 1966, the couple was married. Dr. Gallagher passed on in 1988 after 22 years of marriage.
This past June she attended her 75th class reunion at Simmons.