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‘Dental hygiene’s matriarch,’ Dr. Esther Wilkins, dies

December 16, 2016

By Michelle Manchir

Photo of Dr. Esther Wilkins
Dr. Wilkins
Dr. Esther Wilkins, lauded as “dental hygiene’s matriarch” who later earned her doctorate in dentistry and became a professor emeritus at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine, died Dec. 12, just days after turning 100.

Among her students was Dr. Kathleen T. O’ Loughlin, ADA executive director, a 1981 graduate of Tufts University School of Dental Medicine.

“She was a phenomenal influence in dental hygiene, in periodontics (her specialty) and a superb role model for all women dentists,” Dr. O’Loughlin said.  “She was a longtime faculty member at Tufts and set very high standards for her students. Her drive for excellence was unrelenting and she often pushed me hard on doing more and doing it better.”

Dr. Wilkins is renowned in the dental hygiene community. Her ubiquitous textbook “Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist” first appeared in 1959, and its 12th edition was published this year, according to the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.

“More than 90 percent of the dental hygiene education programs in the world include it on the syllabus,” the hygienists’ association said in a statement. “Every edition has a differently colored cover, and the book is so iconic to dental hygienists that, amongst themselves, they identify in the era in which they were educated by the color of the book they used.”

After earning a general science degree from Simmons College in Boston in 1938, she continued her education and pursued a certificate in dental hygiene from the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene in 1939, which has since named its clinic after her. Dr. Wilkins then worked in private practice and in a school clinic while pursuing a doctorate in dentistry from Tufts in 1949.

The American Dental Hygienists’ Association credits Wilkins with establishing the University of Washington’s Dental Hygiene School Program before returning to Tufts to receive a specialty in periodontology. She later became a faculty member there, where she spent 45 years and conducted more than 800 continuing education classes, according to the university.

Awards have been established in Dr. Wilkins' name, including The American Dental Hygienists’ Association/Esther Wilkins Future Leader Award, which honors dental hygienists who demonstrate commitment and leadership. The Wilkins/Tufts University Explorer, a Hu-Friedy dental instrument used for caries and calculus detection, is named after her.

In 2012, Dr. Wilkins was honored with a William J. Gies Award for Vision, Innovation and Achievement from the American Dental Education Association Gies Foundation, which honors people and groups that exemplify dedication to the highest standards in dental education, research and leadership.

She was slated to receive a Tufts University School of Dental Medicine Dean’s Medal on Dec. 16, which recognizes individuals who have demonstrated loyalty, service and generosity. The university said it would celebrate Dr. Wilkins’ life and career during the event and award the medal to her posthumously.

Said Dr. O’Loughlin, “Dr. Wilkins was a mentor, a friend and a true leader in dentistry at a time when women were a very small number of dental professionals.  I will miss her terribly.”