Dr. Karl-Åke H. Omnell, who as Dean of the School of Dentistry from 1981 to 1992 set high standards for clinical competence and stressed the importance of research in dental education, passed away on June 30 at his home on Camano Island in Washington. He was 88, and had been battling Parkinson’s disease for a number of years.
Dr. Omnell’s 11-year tenure as Dean was second only to that of Dr. Maurice J. Hickey, who served from 1956 to 1973, and featured several signature achievements, including establishment of the School of Dentistry’s oral radiology program.
Along with Drs. Johnny Johnson and Jack Nichols, Dr. Omnell also played a key role in creating the School of Dentistry’s Dean’s Club in 1983. Providing a stable annual base of support, the club has helped generate a tenfold increase in the number of the School’s endowments, which sustain scholarships and fellowships, professorships, chairs and lectureships, programs, research and more. Dr. Omnell’s service to the School was honored in 2000 with the bestowal of the Dean’s Club Honorary Lifetime Member Award, the club’s highest recognition.
“All of us connected with the School are saddened by the loss of one of our most outstanding leaders,” Dean Joel Berg said. “Dr. Omnell set exacting standards in clinical education and, as an outstanding researcher in his own right, fully appreciated the value of clinical research in training new dentists.”
Dean Berg added, “All of us who followed him in the deanship are profoundly indebted to him for his leadership in helping create the Dean’s Club, which has played a key part in helping us sustain our tradition of excellence.”
Dean Emeritus Paul Robertson, Dr. Omnell’s successor and friend, said that Dr. Omnell made the deanship transition a pleasure.
“He was kind and caring and a superb mentor. He was honest and highly ethical, and his primary concern was for his faculty and the students. He often said that his primary goal was to educate the best general dentists in the United States, if not the world,” Dr. Robertson said.
“Karl-Åke was highly respected throughout the dental profession because he was such a triple threat – clinically, academically and in research,” he said.
Dr. Omnell came to the University of Washington from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) in Bethesda, Md., where he was Clinical Director and Chief of the Clinical Investigations and Patient Care Branch. He already enjoyed an international reputation in oral radiation and radiation biology research, Dr. Robertson said.
“He was strong-minded about clinical competence, but also strong-minded about inquiring minds,” Dr. Robertson said. “He said, ‘There is no lasting truth in science, including the science of dentistry.’ ”
He noted that Dr. Omnell collaborated with Dr. Roy Page to create the School’s Regional Clinical Dental Research Center and supported research activity to the extent that the School became a leader in studies of the etiology and treatment of dental disease.
A native of Sweden, Dr. Omnell received his DDS from that country’s Royal Dental School in Stockholm in 1950, along with a degree in odontology from the University of Lund in Malmo in 1957. He became a diplomate of the American Board of Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology in 1982 and a Fellow of the International College of Dentists in 1984.
He held faculty appointments at a series of schools in Sweden from 1950 to 1974, serving as dean of the University of Lund School of Dentistry from 1971 to 1974. He also served as a visiting assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine from 1960 to 1961 and as a visiting scientist with NIH from 1961 to 1962. In 1958, he received the Swedish Dental Association Prize for the most important scientific contribution to Swedish dentistry in 1956-57.
He authored or co-authored several dozen journal papers and presented research or lectured in countries all over the world, including Brazil, Germany, Japan, China, Spain, Sweden and the United States.
Dr. Omnell was also widely recognized for his skill as an art photographer, especially with his floral compositions. His photographs were shown in many venues and remain on display in two locations at the University of Washington Medical Center.
No memorial services are planned for Dr. Omnell, who had his wife of many years, Dr. Lena Omnell, at his side when he passed away, along with other family members. The family has requested that those who wish to honor his memory do so by donating to the Dean Karl-Åke Omnell Endowed Scholarship Fund at the School of Dentistry, or to Doctors Without Borders.