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Longest-serving Indiana dental school professor retires from 67-year career

Longest-serving Indiana dental school professor retires from 67-year career
A contemporary photo of the educator who retired this year at age 93 after a 67-year career in dental education and private practice. Photo by Timothy Centers

Indianapolis—Wednesday mornings must seem a lot different for Dr. Henry M. Swenson.

A part-time faculty member at the Indiana University School of Dentistry, Dr. Swenson retired in June at age 93—capping off a remarkable 67-year career in dental education.

"I'm taking early retirement," the periodontist who has been part of the school for more than half of its 131-year existence said in a news release issued by IU June 29. "I feel I've done everything I could do here."

A memento he'll take with him is a June 16, 1943, Western Union telegram that set the course for his life: "Position offered at university of Indiana call Dean Crawford."

At the time, the Long Island, N.Y., native was a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Illinois who had just completed a pathology fellowship at the Medical College of Virginia. Dr. Swenson accepted the IU post, moved to Indianapolis and set up a private practice.

Dr. Henry Swenson with dental students in 1949. Photo courtesy IU School of Dentistry
Indiana icon: Dr. Henry Swenson with dental students in 1949. Photo courtesy IU School of Dentistry
He arrived at the dental school one year before Dr. Maynard K. Hine, Indiana's longest serving dental dean (1945-68) and a past ADA president (1965-66). Dr. Hine had been Dr. Swenson's faculty mentor at the University of Illinois, and Dr. Swenson campaigned to bring Dr. Hine to IU. Dr. Hine was originally brought in to teach periodontics and build the subject into a department, but when he was named dean he shifted those duties to Dr. Swenson. The two remained close friends and colleagues until Dr. Hine's death in 1996.

Throughout his career at the dental school, Dr. Swenson spent a significant amount of time traveling to IU campuses in Fort Wayne and South Bend, Ind., to help establish allied dental education programs. In fact, he flew himself in his sky-blue Acro Sport, which he later donated to a museum for experimental aircraft in Wisconsin. Dr. Swenson is a skilled pilot who has restored eight vintage aircraft and built an aerobatic biplane from scratch in his garage and basement.

Just three years ago, he sold his private practice but remained actively involved in his specialty. At the dental school, he began serving as a senior adviser who lectured periodically to graduate students on practice management and the dentist's role as an expert witness in courts of law. Dr. Swenson said he remained with IU because of the supportive environment he found there. "At this school, everybody always helps the other guy out," he said. "That's the reason I stayed."

In 1997, Dr. Swenson became only the second part-time IU dental professor to receive an emeritus title—an honor usually reserved for IU's full-time professors upon retirement.

Role model: Dr. Swenson relaxes on the grounds of the IU School of Dentistry, where he taught for 67 years.
Role model: Dr. Swenson relaxes on the grounds of the IU School of Dentistry, where he taught for 67 years.

"Henry has been a professional and personal role model par excellence to innumerable professionals—periodontists or not," said Dr. Lawrence I. Goldblatt, who recently retired as IU's dean and wasn’t yet born when Dr. Swenson taught his first classes at IU. "He's a constant force for the optimism, enthusiasm and excellence which have been the hallmarks of our school and our profession."

Dr. Swenson has also recently retired from piloting airplanes, though he is mulling over the idea of using his newly freed-up Wednesday mornings to construct another biplane.

He sees nothing unique in his record of service to Indiana University. "I come from a family of doers," he said, referring to his Swedish-born parents with no education who taught themselves English after they came to America and worked hard to put one son through dental school and another through medical school. "I'm just an ordinary guy who tried to do a job well."