1. Esther Wilkins Tribute

Dr. Esther Wilkins, A Gracious Pioneer and Role Model for Dental Hygienists

By Patricia A. Walters, RDH, MSDH, MSOB

Dr. Esther Wilkins (1916-2016) was the epitome of elegance and success that people associate with royalty and celebrities. Well, Esther Wilkins was certainly royalty in dental hygiene professional circles. Her popularity was evident at dental hygiene meetings held across the world where lines formed to shake her hand or acquire her autograph in a copy of the dental hygiene textbook she authored titled, Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist.

Esther Wilkins’ first textbook was published in 1960 and my copy of the textbook was published in 1983, which I am proud to say was autographed by her in Boston while attending one of my first ADHA meetings. I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Esther at her apartment that overlooked the Charles River and placed my hand on the typewriter she used to write her early editions. I was awestruck as I stood over her slight stature and asked her humbly for her autograph. What was really impressive after this encounter is she always remembered my name when we would see each other at future meetings.

In my mind, Esther was the heart and soul of the dental hygiene profession, even though her time as a practicing dental hygienist was short. She earned her dental hygiene degree in 1939 from the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene in Boston and went on to get her dental degree in 1950, being one of only 3 women in the program. In 1966, she attained a certificate in Advanced Periodontology. She never left her dental hygiene roots behind while pursuing higher degrees. I admired her guts and determination in pursuit of these degrees considering she was one among a few female students in the dental school program.

Just reading about her accomplishments during my research of the dental hygiene profession, helped me make the decision to pursue an associate degree in dental hygiene. Like Esther, I spent only a couple years in private practice before continuing my education endeavors. Influenced by her career path, I chose not only to pursue my Bachelor and Master degree of Dental Hygiene, but also to tackle the Master of Oral Biology degree, a program with few women in it, at the same time. The head of the program said to me, “A Dental Hygienist has never been in the program” and he had doubts I could complete it. Again, I pulled from Esther’s example and went for it.

After this personal encounter, there were many more over the years at different dental meetings that just warmed my heart. Dr. Wilkins may have taught didactic courses at Tufts for 45 years but the lessons that she taught dental hygienists around the world centered around professionalism, ethics, determination and success strategies.

Even though Esther was short in stature, she towered over everyone when you list her accomplishments in life. She was strong in character and humble when honored by individuals and organizations, even when the City of Boston declared December 9th, 2006 Esther Wilkins Day.

I had tremendous respect and admiration for Esther Wilkins and my career path was greatly influenced based on her role modeling and selfless encouragement. She shared her enthusiasm for the dental hygiene profession with all dental hygiene students and those later in their careers. May she rest in peace knowing her legacy will live on in hygienists like me.

By Patricia A. Walters, RDH, MSDH, MSOB

Ms. Walters is an independent contract medical writer. After earning an MS in Oral Biology and an MS in Dental Hygiene Education from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, she began her career in Dental Hygiene Education at the University of Texas at San Antonio followed by 17 years at P&G in clinical trials research and Professional Relations in the area of Oral Care.