In 2016, celebrity deaths filled the headlines. But there was one passing that hit close to home in the dental world: on December 12th, Dr. Esther Wilkins, a giant in the field of dental hygiene, died a few days after suffering a stroke on the morning of her 100th birthday.
Dr. Wilkins was best known for her seminal textbook, Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist, now in its 12th edition. First published in 1959, the textbook and its lessons established a standardized curriculum for hygienists that became the template for dental hygiene instruction.
Before her curriculum was introduced, hygienists did not work side-by-side with many dentists. Instead, they taught oral hygiene techniques at schools, rarely performing the actual check-ups and cleanings themselves.
Dr. Wilkin’s curriculum encouraged hygienists to become preventive specialists with a hands-on approach. Her curriculum was first introduced at the University of Washington, where she began the school’s first dental hygiene program. She then went on to teach at Tufts University for 45 years, during which she also traveled widely, giving more than 600 lectures in dozens of counties.
According to a New York Times obituary, Dr. Wilkins was a celebrity in dental circles. At conferences, she was “mobbed” by autograph-seeking admirers, and even traveled with an entourage of four bodyguards in her final years to help manage all of the attention she was getting at such events.
Dr. Tim Hempton, a colleague of Dr. Wilkins’ at Tufts, summarized her lasting impact: “I don’t think people appreciated dental hygienists until she came along and made sure they did.”