Past NIDCR director and champion of dental profession dies
"He had a way of articulating the importance of oral health, and his interest in clinical research and appreciation for basic science was unique," recalled Dr. Robert Genco, distinguished professor and vice provost at the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine who first worked with Dr. Löe in 1972. "He was extremely supportive of colleagues, particularly young investigators, and he often included them on programs that might have been their first program—he did that for me. He encouraged young people and was an excellent mentor."
Dr. Löe, a past director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, died Aug. 9 at his home in Norway. He was 82.
Born in Steinkjer, Norway, Dr. Löe received his dental degree in 1952 from Oslo University before receiving a series of impressive academic appointments, including professorships at the Royal Dental College in Denmark and at Hebrew University, Israel. He also was a Fulbright Scholar in Oral Pathology in 1957.
In 1974 he was appointed dean and professor in the Department of Periodontology at the University of Connecticut, where he stayed until 1983 when he became the fifth director of what was then called the National Institute of Dental Research. His goals there, he told the ADA News in 1994, were to broaden dental research to areas beyond caries and periodontal disease and to encourage dental students to pursue research.
"I strongly believe that the future general practitioner," Dr. Löe said, "is going to be dealing not only with caries and periodontal disease, but also with oral cancer, temporomandibular disorders, smell and taste disorders and a variety of other problems. The day is not going to be filled with restorations. Edentulousness is going to disappear!"
Said Dr. Michael Glick, editor of The Journal of the American Dental Association, "There was no one in the world of dental science more renowned or more respected than Harald Löe. His many contributions helped shape the present and future of dentistry. I was fortunate to count Dr. Löe as a friend. He will be sorely missed."
While at NIDCR, Dr. Löe established the Dentist Scientist Award Program and was credited with increasing the institute's spectrum of dental research to include molecular biology investigations of oral infections caused by systemic diseases such as acquired immune deficiency syndrome, bone and joint diseases, salivary gland dysfunctions, oral cancer and genetic disorders. He also transformed the National Caries Program to include periodontal and other diseases into a new Epidemiology and Oral Disease Prevention Program.
"The ADA had a great relationship with Dr. Löe, who was a pioneer in periodontal research," ADA President Mark J. Feldman said. "His leadership at the NIDCR left a great legacy in dental research. His influence will not be forgotten."
"You can't overestimate the impact this man has had on dental research," agreed Dr. Christopher Fox, executive director of the International and American Associations for Dental Research.
He added, "Dr. Löe and co-workers also developed the experimental gingivitis model that probably every dental student is familiar where you get a group of volunteer dental students to stop brushing their teeth and see what happens."
Both Drs. Fox and Genco said that 1965 study, "Experimental Gingivitis in Man," was pivotal in providing evidence for the primary role of dental plaque in the causation of gingivitis. The study, Dr. Löe said, was inspired by Dr. Löe's own mentor, Dr. Jens Waerhaug, his former professor at Oslo University.
"Those were exciting times," said Dr. Löe in 1994, "and I think that what I did was to take the mystery out of periodontal disease. I've been very fortunate to be a part of all this. I think it has shaped my life, really, and my way of thinking also."
In June of this year, the NIDCR celebrated its 60th anniversary. Lois Cohen, Ph.D., who worked with Dr. Löe as the director of planning, evaluation and communications as well as assistant direct for international health, paid tribute to him during a party held by the Friends of NIDCR.
Calling his legacy "formidable," she spoke of Dr. Löe's considerable accomplishments, including increasing the NIDCR budget from about "$80 million to almost $170 million.
"He led the effort to establish the Dentist Scientist Award program and internationalized NIDCR's research agenda," she said, "as the NIDR became the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Dental Research and Training. He created, with the help of a congressional directive, 30 centers for oral health research around the country.
"I was saddened to learn of Dr. Löe's passing," said Dr. Lawrence Tabak, NIDCR director since 2000. "Under Dr. Löe's leadership, the institute doubled its budget and expanded its research agenda to encompass oral and craniofacial tissues. Dr. Löe will be remembered for his enabling vision of dental science and his many contributions to improving oral health in the United States and throughout the world."
"He was very concerned about the available labor force for dental research," Dr. Cohen added. "He supported all research but was most concerned that we weren't producing enough researchers in the United States, in particular clinical scientists. That's why the Dentist Scientist Award program was created."
Under Dr. Löe's leadership, a number of consensus and technology assessment conferences were held and a new series began, Scientific Frontiers in Clinical Dentistry, launched with continuing education credits for clinicians.
Dr. Cohen also read a note from Dr. Löe encapsulating his thoughts on his time spent as director. "I have now reached the stage in life when long memory is predominant; and as I contemplate my six decades of involvement in dental research, education and practice, I think of my time in the Institute as especially interesting, important and meaningful. I continue to be proud of the Institute's past and current scientific endeavors and its impact on oral health improvements around the world."
In 1989, Dr. Löe received the Surgeon General's Exemplary Service Award in recognition for his leadership in public service in the United States. Then Surgeon General C. Everett Koop presented the medal and plaque to Dr. Löe and later said, "Dr. Löe bridged the gap between medicine and dentistry, and that's what I appreciated about him."
Dr. Genco agreed, saying, "When he was [at NIDCR], he had to make the argument for the importance of oral health and he never compromised dentistry."
In 1994, Dr. Genco was on the committee that awarded Dr. Löe the prestigious ADA Gold Medal Award, an award Dr. Genco received in 1991. The two played golf together. Dr. Löe was a pretty good golfer and enjoyed ribbing Dr. Genco about his skills on the golf course.
"I showed him my score one time—a 63—and he said, 'But Bob, that was for the front 9 [holes.]' " said Dr. Genco, laughing at the memory.
Dr. Löe is survived by his wife, Inga, and two children. His funeral was set for Aug. 14 in Oslo.
The ADA will continue to update this story on ADA.org. To see the Friends of the NIDCR tribute, visit www.fnidcr.org/special/NIDCR60th.html.