UW School of Dentistry

Dr. Esther Wilkins, founder of UW dental hygiene program, dies at 100

Dr. Esther Wilkins, who founded the University of Washington School of Dentistry’s dental hygiene program and was widely regarded as the godmother of modern dental hygiene, died on Dec. 12 in Boston at the age of 100. She had celebrated her birthday three days earlier.

Esther WilkinsDr. Wilkins, who held a dental degree, a dental hygiene certification and specialty certification in periodontics, literally wrote the book on the discipline with her classic text, Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist. First published in 1959, the book is in its 12th edition and remains widely in use.

A 1938 graduate of Simmons College, she received a certificate from the Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene in 1939 and worked for six years at a small Massachusetts dental practice. Dr. Wilkins earned her DMD at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston, then served an internship at the Eastman Dental Dispensary in Rochester, N.Y. The University of Washington then asked her to start a dental hygiene program at its fledging dental school, where she spent the next 12 years and wrote her textbook.

“Dental hygiene lost a remarkable woman,” said UW School of Dentistry Professor Emeritus Norma Wells, herself a prominent figure in the school’s program. “Over the years we have given thanks to her in many ways as she brought dental hygiene education – an emerging profession then – to Seattle in 1948.”

By 1950, Professor Wells said, Dr. Wilkins had launched both a bachelor’s degree program and a degree completion program in dental hygiene at the UW.

“We can be forever thankful to her willingness to come West to work with the School of Dentistry and for having such a talent in our midst,” Professor Wells said. The school discontinued its baccalaureate dental hygiene program in 1983, but continues to offer a master’s degree in oral biology for dental hygienists.

Dr. Wilkins received the American Dental Education Association’s William J. Gies Award for Achievement by a Dental Educator in 2012 and the International College of Dentists Distinguished Service Award in 2013. In addition, the Wilkins/Tuft Explorer instrument, a probe used by oral health providers to detect caries and calculus on teeth, is named after her.

Her final visit to Washington state came in April 2011, when she joined the members of the Washington State Dental Hygienists’ Association to celebrate the group’s 90th anniversary.

After her stint at the UW, Dr. Wilkins returned to the Tufts School of Dental Medicine in her native Massachusetts to earn her periodontology certification in 1964, and she went on to become a clinical professor there. She continued to lecture, mentor, and advocate well into her 90s, and was an emeritus  clinical professor of periodontology at Tufts after retiring.

On Dec. 16, she had been scheduled to receive a Dean’s Medal, the highest honor given by a dean of a school at Tufts University, recognizing those who have made significant contributions to their school and the greater community.