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Dr. Johansen, Tufts' longest-serving dental dean, dies

Boston—Dr. Erling Johansen, a high school teacher who emigrated to the U.S. from Norway during World War II and went on to become a prodigious dental researcher and the longest-serving dean of the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, died Feb. 29 in Norway after a long illness. He was 84 years old.

"Erling Johansen was a forward-thinking leader who placed an emphasis on high standards and scientific research," said Dr. Lonnie Norris, the Tufts dean who succeeded Dr. Johansen after his retirement in 1995.

"He and his wife, Inger, worked tirelessly to foster dental research and education at Tufts, and Erling's own research benefited people who suffer from dry mouth, including those undergoing cancer treatment," said Dr. Norris. "His support of research benefited dental students and elevated the dental profession overall."

It was his commitment to research that brought him to Tufts as dean. Dr. Johansen was a dental student in his native Norway during World War II. When the Nazis closed the universities, he went to work as a high school teacher. According to the Tufts Journal, the university, as "part of an effort to help the beleaguered Scandinavian country," invited 22 Norwegian students to enroll at the dental school. Dr. Johansen graduated cum laude from Tufts in 1949.

After dental school, Dr. Johansen served a year in the Norwegian Armed Forces Dental Corps in Germany during the Allied occupation then was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. After completing his Ph.D. in pathology in 1955, he was appointed chair of the department of dentistry and dental research and in 1966, the Margaret and Cy Welcher Professor of Dental Research. At Rochester, he spent 24 years supervising the training of dental researchers.

In 1979, he began his tenure as dean at Tufts, a post he would hold for 16-1/2 years—the longest tenure of any dean in the school's 140-year history.

Dr. Kathleen O'Loughlin, a member of the Tufts University board of trustees, was a member of the first class that Dr. Johansen graduated as dean. In the beginning, it came as a surprise to her and many of her classmates that Dr. Johansen sought opportunities to interact with students. "In fact, in our senior year, he was invited to a senior student's home for dinner. Someone had just returned from an externship in Alaska and brought back fresh salmon," said Dr. O'Loughlin. "No one really thought he would show up but he and his wife did. It was a delightful evening."

Dr. O'Loughlin's collaborations with Dr. Johansen continued after graduation when she became president of the alumni association during the planning of the dental school's 125th anniversary celebration. "He didn't have much patience for people who put on airs," she said. "He had this Norwegian phrase he used regularly, and the English translation was 'self-praise stinks,' meaning you should never try to bring attention to yourself; bring attention to the school."

If he found things intolerable, she said "he reached up and turned down the volume on his hearing aid."

An early challenge that Dr. Johansen faced as dean involved the switch from a three-year to a four-year curriculum. Student research was limited by a three-year curriculum, said Dr. O'Loughlin, and Dr. Johansen "demanded excellence in scientific pursuits."

"That's what he emphasized above all, the importance of scientific activity, and that sometimes the most basic scientific discovery can have an enormous impact on people," said Dr. O'Loughlin.

Dr. Johansen's research at the University of Rochester led to the development of an oral health management system for cancer patients. He discovered a solution of minerals that when combined with fluoride therapy and basic dental hygiene alleviated pain and resulted in less mucositis in bone marrow transplant patients. As noted in the Tufts Journal, "head and neck cancer patients and others around the world benefited from his research."

In 1994, Dr. Johansen was appointed a Tufts Distinguished Professor; received the alumni association's Distinguished Service Award; and alumnus Dr. Edward Becker established the school's first endowed faculty chair, the Dr. Erling Johansen, D49, Endowed Professorship in Dental Research. Dr. Athena Papas, director of oral medicine and co-head of geriatric dentistry, currently holds the Erling Johansen Professorship in Dental Research.

Dr. Johansen retired from Tufts in 1995, 50 years after he arrived as a first-year dental student, and was named dean emeritus and professor of general dentistry emeritus. Upon his retirement, Dr. Johansen told the Tufts Journal: "I really do believe in the power of education, and I think a dental education is about the best anyone can get."

He is survived by Inger, his wife of 55 years; three sons Erling, Erik and Steven; three grandchildren; and two sisters.

Memorial donations may be made to the Dr. Erling Johansen, D49, and Inger Johansen Student Aid Fund at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine.

A memorial service for Dr. Johansen will be held Sept. 26 at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. (For information, contact Anita Yen at 1-617-636-6721 or anita.yen@tufts.edu.)