Tufts University lost one of its pioneers—though she was reluctant to use that word—with the death of Esther Wilkins, D49, DG66, a clinical professor of periodontology emerita at the School of Dental Medicine, on December 12, 2016. She had turned one hundred three days before.
Wilkins, a renowned authority on dental hygiene who taught at Tufts for forty-five years, had a profound influence on the dental profession. “She was a pioneer, a devoted educator, and a friend to everyone at Tufts School of Dental Medicine,” Dean Huw Thomas said.
Wilkins trained as a hygienist at the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene and worked at a practice on Boston’s North Shore before entering dental school at Tufts, one of three women in her class. She went on to found the dental hygiene program at the University of Washington School of Dentistry. In 1959, she published what has become the definitive text on dental hygiene, Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist, now in its twelfth edition and used throughout the world. She became an inspiration and mentor to generations of hygiene students, and even had a dental instrument, the Wilkins/Tufts Explorer, named for her.
During her four-plus decades at Tufts she pursued the idea that a healthy mouth is necessary for a healthy body, preaching the importance of preventing periodontal disease to both students and practicing professionals. In 1966, she married her dental school classmate James Gallagher, and in 2008, she established the Dr. James B. Gallagher Jr., A47, D49, DG68, and Dr. Esther M. Wilkins, D49, DG66, Scholarship Fund.
Wilkins received the American Dental Education Association’s William J. Gies Award for Achievement by a Dental Educator in 2012, the International College of Dentists Distinguished Service Award in 2013, and the Lucy Hobbs Project Industry Icon Award in 2015. Just days after her passing, she was posthumously awarded the Dean’s Medal at the School of Dental Medicine in recognition of her loyalty, service, and generosity to the university.
The American Dental Hygiene Association released this tribute: “More than 90 percent of the dental hygiene educations in the world include her textbook on the syllabus. Every edition has a differently colored cover, and the book is so iconic to dental hygienists that, amongst themselves, they identify the era in which they were educated by the color of the book they used…. A highlight of [our] annual conference was the student quiz program, Are You Smarter than Dr. Esther Wilkins?”