Dr. Esther Wilkins: The rock star of dental hygiene

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 emerita 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, RDH, called her "the hygienist's hygienist ... a remarkable woman, who has advanced the art and science of dental hygiene to its fullest degree." Norma 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 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. 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. You can review his other published works at www.danieldemers.com.


Camires C. 'Grandmother of dental hygiene' receives honor from Boston council. FM103.3 website. https://fm100.com/?nid=27&sid=93254. Published December 12, 2006. Accessed June 23, 2013.

DePalma AM. Dr. Esther Wilkins. RDH Magazine. 2001;2:8. https://www.rdhmag.com/career-profession/personal-wellness/article/16405679/dr-esther-wilkins. Accessed June 29, 2013.

Eastman Dental Dispensary. Wikipedia website. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastman_Dental_Dispensary. Accessed June 25, 2013.

Flaherty J. By the Book. Tufts Now. https://now.tufts.edu/2012/03/13/book. Published March 12, 2012. Accessed June 13, 2013.

Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene website. https://www.mcphs.edu/academics/schools/forsyth-school-of-dental-hygiene. Accessed June 23, 2013.

Holviaras-Delozier, CA. Esther M. Wilkins, BS, RDH, DMD: A mentor and icon in dental hygiene. Access Magazine. 2008;22(4):34-37. https://www.professionalsavvychd.com/files/articles/PS_-_Acc0408SFWilkins_Esther_M_Wilkins_BS_RDH_DMD_A_Mentor_and_Icon_in_Dental_Hygiene.pdf. Accessed June 24, 2013.

Meet Dr. Joseph Kenneally. Kenneally & Steed website. http://www.kenneallydental.com/meet-dr-joseph-kenneally. Accessed October 23, 2013.

Simmons College. Wikipedia website. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simmons_College. Accessed June 23, 2013.

Email correspondence

Helen Drinan, President, Simmons College, June 23, 2103.

Josh Hammer, DMD, June 29, 2013.

Joe Kenneally, DMD, International College of Dentists, May 7, 2013.

Janice Taylor, Assistant Vice President, Simmons College, July 2, 2013.

Norma Wells, MPH, University of Washington Dental Hygiene Program, June 24, 2013.

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