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Esther M. Wilkins DH ’39, DMD,

Esther M. Wilkins DH ’39, DMD, Dental Hygiene Pioneer, Passes at 100

  • On December 12, 2016, Esther M. Wilkins DH ’39, DMD, a dental hygiene pioneer and alumna of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene, passed away at her home in Hudson, New Hampshire. She celebrated her 100th birthday three days before her death.

    Dr. Wilkins was a long-time friend to MCPHS and was a source of inspiration for all in the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene community and beyond.

    "I’m not sure what you say about a legend like Dr. Wilkins," said Linda Boyd, RDH, RD, EdD, Dean of the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene. "There will never be anyone quite like her. She was a pioneer in our profession."

    As news of her passing spread, members of the Dental Hygiene community, including faculty, students, and alumni of MCPHS Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene, began to share their memories of Dr. Wilkins on social media. Many students posted their pictures and tributes to Dr. Wilkins using the hashtag #EstherWilkins.

    Christopher Knanfi was one of the Forsyth alumni who shared his memories of Dr. Wilkins on social media. "I was very lucky to have multiple experiences meeting Dr. Wilkins during my time at MCPHS in the Forsyth Dental Hygiene bachelor's program," wrote Knanfi in his Instagram post. "I was even lucky enough to have her autograph one of my textbooks, something I will now cherish forever. She will be missed by all in our community, but her legacy will live on through all of us who continue to learn and practice in the field of dental hygiene."

    A mentor to many, Dr. Wilkins' life and accomplishments serve as a source of inspiration. "Esther Wilkins' greatest gift was her ability to inspire dental hygienists simply by her own example," said Dianne Smallidge, RDH, MDH, Associate Professor in the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene. "She taught us to be better clinicians, highly motivated educators, and lifelong learners. Words cannot express the void her passing will leave in our profession, and in the hearts of those who were privileged to know her, and be mentored by her."

    Dr. Wilkins graduated from Simmons College in 1938, earning a general science major. Her interest in dental hygiene was sparked during her senior year and she decided to become a dental hygienist.

    She went on to earn a certificate from the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene in 1939, beginning a nearly eight decade long affiliation with her alma mater. The Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene at MCPHS is the longest continually operating school of dental hygiene in the U.S. and celebrated its centennial anniversary this year.

    She applied for a degree in dentistry at Tufts University and entered the program in 1949, at a time when less than 2% of dentists were women. She went on to found the first Dental Hygiene program at the University of Washington, School of Dentistry, which she led for 10 years.

    Through this experience, Dr. Wilkins identified the need for an up-to-date textbook on dental hygiene. In 1959, Dr. Wilkins published the Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist, the first comprehensive textbook on dental hygiene. According to Boyd, the text is considered the "dental hygienist's bible" and is the seminal textbook used by generations of dental hygiene students.

    The 12th edition of the text was published January 5, 2016, and has 1,296 pages and a vibrant yellow and blue cover. The color of the textbook, which changes for each edition, has become an important identifier for Dental Hygiene students throughout the decades. As Dr. Wilkins noted in an interview in 2012, when she would ask students what year they graduated, they need only say "yellow book," and she would know it "had to be between '71 and '76".

    She returned to Tufts University to earn an Advanced Periodontal Certification in 1966, and worked as a clinical professor at the University from 1966 to 2016. The Esther Wilkins Lifetime Achievement Award at Tufts University was presented and established in her name.

    Dr. Wilkins maintained a decades-long affiliation with her alma mater, the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene at MCPHS. She was committed to the education of dental hygiene students and generations of Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene students have experienced her expertise, wit, and encouragement first-hand, as she was an active presence on campus. She served as guest lecturer in countless dental hygiene classes over the years, inspiring dental hygiene students with her passion.

    She presented nearly 1,000 continuing education programs around the world and was an active participant and presenter at industry and education conferences. In October of this year, MCPHS hosted the 10th Esther M. Wilkins Symposium, an annual continuing education conference focused on the latest in dental hygiene practice.

    In 2004, Dr. Wilkins received an honorary Doctor of Health Sciences degree from MCPHS for her achievements in the practice and advancement of dental hygiene. In presenting Dr. Wilkins with her degree at Commencement, MCPHS president President Charles F. Monahan, Jr. BSP '62 recognized her groundbreaking work, as well as her mentorship of students and colleagues, which made her "one of the most beloved figures in the profession". In accepting the degree, Dr. Wilkins addressed the graduates and said "We are all specialists in the Health Sciences. We all have the same common goals related to the betterment and safeguarding the health of all people." She noted that it was an honor to accept the degree on behalf of all dental hygienists around the world.

    Dr. Wilkins' extensive charitable giving included contributions that fostered the creation of state-of-the-art dental hygiene clinics at MCPHS. In 2005, MCPHS opened the Esther M. Wilkins Forsyth Dental Hygiene Clinic on the Boston campus, and in 2013, opened a second location on the Worcester campus. Today, the clinic is considered one of the most comprehensive oral hygiene education and services clinic in New England, where dental hygiene students deliver high quality oral healthcare services to the public. Through the clinics, students are empowered to gain hands-on experience working with real patients, which also giving back to the community, an enduring testament to Dr. Wilkins.

    Her generosity extended to the establishment of an endowed scholarship fund. "Dr. Wilkins was a strong advocate for education through the many scholarship opportunities she created to support students," said Boyd. The fund she established supports dental hygiene students with generous awards, a legacy that speaks to her commitment to educating the next generation of dental hygienists.

    Her name appears on the Esther M. Wilkins Distinguished Alumni Award, which is presented to alumni who are making an important impact in the field. The award has been presented to twenty four alumni since its creation in 1992, and was most recently awarded to Ann-Marie Cusato DePalma '78.

    Within the MCPHS community, Dr. Wilkins' legacy will continue to inspire passion and dedication for years to come.

    "She will be greatly missed, but her spirit will always be with us and challenge us to be our very best in everything we do," said Boyd.

    Contributions in Dr. Wilkins' memory can be made to the Esther M. Wilkins Endowed Scholarship Fund. Checks can be made payable to the MCPHS University, and mailed to the Esther M. Wilkins Endowed Scholarship Fund, c/o Office of University Advancement, MCPHS University, 179 Longwood Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.