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To his patients, Pushkar Mehra is a miracle worker. He is one of five doctors in the country who performs a 3-step, 10-hour surgery that takes apart and reconstructs a patient’s lower face—deformed by congenital growth problems, tumors, or diseases like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. The surgery restores patients’ ability to eat, speak, sleep, and breathe normally.
And the most surprising part of Mehra’s job is his title: dentist.
“You would think I’m a plastic surgeon, but plastic surgeons have no clue how to put things together that are eggshell,” says Mehra (SDM’95,’99), a School of Dental Medicine associate professor, chair of oral and maxillofacial surgery, and associate dean for hospital affairs. “The only way you build it is by putting the teeth together first.”
Mehra is part of a long line of specialists, researchers, and community activists who have helped distinguish the Boston University Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year. The school kicked off its yearlong celebration at a Boston reception on February 1 and will be hosting events through November 30 at sites in the United States and abroad.
Jeffrey Hutter, dean of SDM and the Spencer N. Frankl Professor in Dental Medicine, proposed the yearlong celebration as a way to recognize the major milestone and to pull together its 6,500 alumni spread out across 55 countries and in every state except Wyoming. (That means no anniversary events in Cheyenne.)
An accomplished oral pathologist and periodontist, Henry Goldman started the Division of Stomatology within the BU School of Medicine in 1958, and on October 16, 1963, he signed the charter that created the dental school, according to Thomas Kilgore, an SDM professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery and chair of the 50th anniversary planning group. Hutter hopes to reenact that signature at a fall birthday party, complete with cake.
Initially, the dental school offered only postdoctoral programs in a handful of specialties, including pediatric dentistry, endodontics, orthodontics, periodontology, and oral and maxillofacial surgery. Goldman “raided Harvard liberally,” Kilgore says, to fill leadership positions at the new school, scoring specialists like oral and maxillofacial surgeon Donald Booth and orthodontist Anthony Gianelly. In those days, specialists spent more time in private practice than they did teaching. That changed in 1972, when the school accepted its first predoctoral class as the federal government pushed universities to open more slots to regular dentists.
Pediatric dentist Spencer Frankl, who was associate dean at the time, managed the transition as professionals took on greater teaching loads, and the school secured a $1.1 million federal grant for construction to accommodate the program. In 1976, Frankl was appointed dean designate, and in 1977 he was installed as dean and deputy director of Boston University Medical Center.
Frankl also introduced the school-without-walls concept, launching service projects that sent dental students beyond campus as early as their first year to provide services to low-income patients. The dental school now runs 5 citywide prevention programs and operates in 59 public schools in Boston, Chelsea, Framingham, Natick, and Lawrence, providing students with dental screenings, fluoride applications, and oral health education.
“We are very much mindful of the fact that we are a real part of Boston,” Hutter says. “We want to support the children in inner-city schools.”
Dental students have also done rotations through Dorchester’s Codman Square Health Center, served a remote population in Bethel, Alaska, and volunteered on service trips to Nicaragua, India, and Mexico to fill cavities and pull teeth for patients, some of whom had never visited a dentist.
Hutter was appointed SDM dean in 2008 after serving as ad interim dean for a year after Frankl died. One of his most important contributions is the school’s shift from an individual to a group teaching model. Under faculty guidance, students are assigned to a team practice that includes first- through fourth-year DMD students, a postdoctoral student from each specialty, and first- and second-year advanced standing students (who have dental degrees earned in foreign countries). The responsibilities of first-year dental students are limited to taking a patient’s blood pressure and learning the ins and outs of an examination, while more advanced students practice the procedures they learned in the school’s Simulation Learning Center, which offers virtual patient care experiences.
“Our hope is that it will bring true excellence to our clinical program and be the best thing for our patients,” Hutter says. Kilgore thinks the new approach will build faculty’s management skills, while allowing them to develop stronger relationships with their students.
Hutter says the new teaching model will also inform the design of a new dental school, which could receive University and city approval within the next five years.
Meanwhile, faculty members continue to push the boundaries of dental research. Eva Helmerhorst, an associate professor of periodontology and oral biology, has discovered that bacteria in the mouth are a rich source of enzymes capable of digesting gluten—a finding that could help people allergic to the protein or who have celiac disease.
And Russell Giordano, an associate professor of restorative sciences and biomaterials and director of biomaterials, has developed a hybrid ceramic that is more fracture-resistant than commonly used materials and can be used in computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) systems that produce crowns, veneers, or other dental fixes while a patient waits in the chair.
Bottom line, says Hutter, there’s more to SDM than a casual observer might think, and possibly that’s part of the charm of dentistry. For his part, Mehra chuckles at reality shows about extreme makeovers and considers how his patients’ lives have changed after a day’s worth of surgery.
But Mehra has no desire to be on TV. “I just like patient and family gratification,” he says. Spoken like a true dentist.