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Infection control pioneer James Crawford, Ph.D., dies at 81

January 24, 2013

By Jean Williams, ADA News staff

James Joseph Crawford, PH.D. 
James Joseph Crawford, Ph.D., a pioneering and pivotal figure in dental infection control, died Jan. 11 at the age of 81.

Known to friends and colleagues as Jim, Dr. Crawford was born in Springfield, Ill. He had been a resident of Chapel Hill, N.C., since 1956 and was formerly a professor of microbiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Dentistry, where his career took shape and he evolved to become a revered figure for his strides in dental infection control.

Dr. Crawford's body of work helped to stanch the spread of infection during dental treatment, being perhaps most noted for bringing attention to how saliva can be a vessel for easily spread pathogens.

John Molinari, Ph.D., a Detroit-based microbiologist and consultant to the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs, had a long acquaintance with Dr. Crawford, first meeting him when Dr. Molinari was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh in 1965. Later, when he became a faculty member at the University of Detroit School of Dentistry in 1977 and managed the school's infection control program, he became a “dear friend and colleague.”

“He brought microbiology and science into the area of dental infection control,” Dr. Molinari said. “Before then, there were clinical things, such as not wearing gloves. Some things were being sterilized, but others weren't. He saw what was happening. He saw the potential for hepatitis B infection and other infections, and he was the first one to say, 'We need to do something about it.' “

Dr. Molinari credited his colleague as being first to visually show people how infection could spread and to make a call for better protection for the dental team.

“He was a first,” Dr. Molinari said. “They don't make people like that anymore. He was a humble man; he impressed everyone around with his humility.”

Both Drs. Crawford and Molinari were founding officers of the Organization for Safety, Asepsis and Prevention. In 1998, OSAP established an annual award in Dr. Crawford's name recognizing lifetime achievement in dental infection prevention and control. Dr. Crawford himself was the first recipient. Dr. Molinari was the second.

Dr. John Young, who lives in Windcrest, Texas, was instrumental in developing medical and dental treatment equipment and procedures for NASA's Space Shuttle and International Space Station. He was Dr. Crawford's colleague and knew his dental infection control efforts well. “He was one of the basic science mainstays and through OSAP consistently kept telling us, in his quiet way, that this was really important,” Dr. Young said.

Dr. Young indicated that OSAP's eventual involvement in government regulation and the advent of HIV and its impact on clinical medicine and dentistry, further underscore Dr. Crawford's significant contributions to dental infection control.

“Infection control and asepsis suddenly became very important for the dental profession, and fortunately forward-thinking scientists like Dr. Crawford were already there and working through organizations like OSAP to provide assistance,” Dr. Young said.

Dr. Crawford earned bachelor's and master's degrees in microbiology from the University of Missouri and a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1962.

Post doctorate investigations at UNC School of Medicine of the bacteria in the nasal passages that caused hearing loss in children with cleft palates led to Dr. Crawford's study of anaerobic organisms in the mouth and dental infections. The mouth and dental studies were in collaboration with the chairman of endodontics at the UNC School of Dentistry, which Dr. Crawford joined in 1963.

Hallmarks of Dr. Crawford's career include consulting with the ADA Council on Dental Therapeutics and the ADA Council on Dental Materials, Instruments and Equipment (both later merged into the Council on Scientific Affairs); and consulting with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the 1970s, Dr. Crawford developed “If Saliva Were Red,” a landmark visual depiction of how pathogens may be spread through saliva during the practice of dentistry. The work proved seminal and OSAP teamed with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2003 to produce a video by the same name that colorfully illustrates how contamination can occur from routine dental treatment and how to take proper precautions to protect dental workers and patients.

The ADA offers an “If Saliva Were Red” DVD in its products catalog, and OSAP and the CDC recently re-produced and released a version of it.

Dr. Crawford is survived by Ann Roach Crawford, Ph.D., his wife of 30 years, six children and a brother. Condolences may be extended to Dr. Ann Roach Crawford at 311 Warren Court, Chapel Hill, N.C., 27516 or by email at