Happy 100th Birthday to Dr Esther Wilkins

Dental Hygienist matriarch, Professor Emeritus Esther Wilkins BS, RDH, DMD, will be celebrating her 100th birthday today.

For those who don’t know, Esther, as she prefers to be called, is one of the true legends of our industry. Like so many of her kind she still remains humble.

“People use the word ‘trailblazer’—or ‘pioneer.’ I didn’t really feel it. I was just there to do it, get it done and work hard,” she says.

Esther was born on 9 December 1916 in Chelmsford, Massachusetts and grew up in nearby Tyngsboro. When the time came to choose a career she originally opted for nursing but later switched to a general science major.

Her life would be changed by a lecture in her senior year on public health careers. Dental hygienist was one of the options and, although she had never met one before, there was something about it that appealed to her.

“They used to say I could find calculus that wasn’t there. One of my strong beliefs is that we must get all of the calculus off in order to control the inflammation in the gingival tissue.”

Graduating in 1939, she started work at the private dental practice of Frank Willis. “He was very, very conscientious,” she recalls. “I learned a lot about good, honest preventive dentistry.”

She soon began to appreciate the impact preventive dentistry could have on lifelong oral health. “The students went to high school with all their teeth,” she says. “It was just a beautiful concept.”

But Esther was realising that her ambitions lay elsewhere and in 1949 she enrolled at Tufts Dental School – supporting her studies by working her vacations back at Willis’ practice.

As much as she loved the small town life, she elected to take an internship in children’s dentistry at the Eastman Dental Dispensary in Rochester, N.Y. Not long after, she was asked to take on a whole different mission: to establish, from the ground up, a dental hygiene program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Humble beginnings

She had to start everything from scratch, from ordering instruments to recruiting clinical faculty. Plus the dental hygiene textbooks that existed were painfully out-of-date.

“There was one chapter on instrumentation, one on anatomy—chapters on things you should have a whole course on,” Wilkins says. “No mention of X-ray, because X-ray hadn’t come along.”

So she began writing up her own text on specialty subjects in dental hygiene, which she distributed to students as mimeographed handouts collected in a loose-leaf binder.

“The first two years, I taught most of the courses myself. When I taught the X-ray course, I used the same program that my teacher at Tufts had used. I had them buy the same textbook. I gave the same contents of lectures that he did. So those X-ray classes were definitely what were being taught in dentistry back at Tufts.”

Wilkins admits she has always been a rigid teacher, particularly in the clinic.

“They used to say I could find calculus that wasn’t there. One of my strong beliefs is that we must get all of the calculus off in order to control the inflammation in the gingival tissue. If it’s not possible in one appointment, then you divide the mouth into two or four appointments. You don’t jump around. You have a very systematic plan.”

By 1959, her mimeographed lessons had piled up. 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 autumn?”

“So I said yes,” Wilkins recalls, “not knowing I was forecasting for the rest of my life.”

History is published

The first edition of Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist was published that autumn.

Esther has continued to apply her exacting standards on each edition, right up to the most recent 11th edition, published in January 2012 – when Esther was 95.

Even as the first copy arrived on her desk with its 1,264 pages plus CD-ROM, she cast a critical eye, right down to the cover, which looked to her like a dark blue. She wrote back to the publisher: “We wanted purple. Is it too late?”

The cover’s hue is more than trivial. Among hygienists, it is a secret handshake of sorts. “Every edition is a different color, you see,” Wilkins explains. “When I ask a dental hygienist what year she graduated, she’ll say ‘Yellow book.’ So I know immediately it had to be between ’71 and ’76.”

An inspirational educator

Sheldon Duchin, former pupil and now assistant professor of periodontology at Tufts University, where Esther taught for many years, recalls first discovering a copy of Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist, with Wilkins’ name on the cover, in the library. When he asked her about it, she said, “Yeah, I actually wrote the dental hygiene bible.” His helpful instructor, he discovered, was “really quite a famous person.”

Another Tufts colleague explains: “Her usual approach to new ideas and projects is ‘Why not?’ And that’s not a question. It’s her way of saying, ‘Let’s do it, and let’s do it now!’ ”

Inspirational individuals like Esther Wilkins have shaped the industry we know today and for this we should be grateful.

The DHAA would like to extend their congratulations and best wishes to Esther and her family on this very special day.

Special thank the Tufts University website for providing the information for this story. Photo: Yoon Byun