A dentist ahead of his time
When Alfred Owre arrived in 1927 to become Columbia’s dental school dean, he was an admired dentist and physician and a medical educator who had worked with William J. Gies on the landmark report that set the standards for training dentists within the broader context of medicine.
Six years later—having feuded with Gies, infuriated much of the dental profession, and alienated the Columbia faculty—Dr. Owre was forced out of his job.
Dr. Owre’s ideas on dental education and the structure of the dental profession are as relevant now as they were then—and no less controversial. The fight over his proposals for the dental school embodied the tensions inherent in viewing dentistry as an integral part of medicine and dental practitioners as independent professionals.
Born in Norway, Dr. Owre led the University of Minnesota’s dental school for more than 20 years before coming to Columbia. Tall and thin, an aesthete and passionate collector of cloisonné, over the course of his life Dr. Owre hiked thousands of miles, walking stick in hand. He stopped only for 10 minutes in each hour of walking, to rest and snack on the dark chocolate he carried, along with two toothbrushes and a pistol, in his knapsack.
His appointment as dean came shortly after the dental school had taken a leap forward. By 1920, the School of Dentistry of Columbia University, as it was then named, had absorbed two small start-up dental schools but still had only 20 students. A 1923 merger with the much-larger College of Dental and Oral Surgery allowed the Columbia program to reach critical mass. The merged school was renamed the School of Dental and Oral Surgery.
Dr. Owre’s first task was to move the dental school from its midtown location—in buildings that had been owned by the College of Dental and Oral Surgery—to the new Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Washington Heights. The dental school and its 156 students moved into three floors in the Vanderbilt Clinic building, where it remains today. In 1929, Dr. Owre received an honorary doctorate from the university, one of the few dentists ever to be so honored. In 1930, he won a grant, worth nearly $1.5 million in today’s dollars, to study the causes of dental decay.
But then Dr. Owre opened the dental school’s new clinic in the Vanderbilt building on 168th Street. He said the clinic would serve middle-class patients unable to afford quality dental care. In the midst of the Depression, practicing dentists did not appreciate the competition—or the implication that patients were being forced to choose between unaffordably high fees or poor care.
Dr. Owre also proposed that routine dental work be performed by technicians under the supervision of a dentist-physician acting largely as a stomatologist. This, Dr. Owre said, would make dental care more widely available and affordable at a time when there were too few dentists for the population.
Only too late did he add that this should be a gradual change in what he called the “medico-dental profession,” not a wholesale sacking of currently practicing dentists and dental students. Just two years into his appointment, wrote his biographer Netta Wilson, “the dentists of New York were coming to regard him as something of a fanatic.”
It didn’t help that Dr. Owre fired right back at his critics, calling members of one professional group “tradesmen and hucksters” and those who opposed him “the ignorant majority.” In the Red-fearing 1930s, he was an admirer of socialized medicine in general and the Soviet system in particular. When he died in 1935, two years after leaving his post under pressure, the dental school faculty memorialized his “prophetic attitude,” politely adding, “He walked ahead of his time, and therefore not always in step with his contemporaries.”
Has the College of Dental Medicine, as it is now named, caught up with its controversial dean? Columbia’s dental faculty practice, a modern version of Dr. Owre’s clinic, was inaugurated in the 1980s and expanded with new facilities in 2008. Dental therapists, similar to Dr. Owre’s technicians, are now allowed to practice in Maine, Minnesota, Vermont, and on tribal lands in Alaska. The innovation continues to be controversial and is opposed by the American Dental Association.
Dr. Owre would find the argument familiar. “He was prescient,” says former dean Ira Lamster, DDS, also a strong believer in integrating dentistry and medicine. “But they ran him out of town.”
This article was originally published on the website of the College of Dental Medicine here.