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Herbert Schilder, former SDM endodontics department chairman, dies at 77

Known worldwide for his pioneering work in root canal therapy

Herbert Schilder was once congratulated for his work by President Bill Clinton. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

When it comes to saving dental patients’ teeth, Herbert Schilder — who helped found the BU School of Dental Medicine in the 1960s — developed a technique that literally gets to the root of the problem.

The world-famous professor and practitioner of endodontics, which deals with diseases of the tooth root and pulp, died on January 25 at the age of 77.  Schilder’s root canal therapy technique involved cleaning out a tooth’s infected tissue, filling it vertically, and compacting it with a heated plastic material, which expands upon cooling, filling the gap.

His pioneering method was immortalized in the film Finding Nemo, when Nemo, a fish in an aquarium in a dentist’s office, watches a root canal being performed on a patient. “Now he’s doing the Schilder technique,” says the wincing starfish Peach. Schilder’s family took him to a theater to see the movie. “He was tickled pink,” his son, Richard, told the Boston Globe. “He finally made it to Hollywood.”

How important was Schilder in his field? At the school’s Endodontic Alumni Association 25th anniversary meeting in 1995, he received a personal phone call from President Bill Clinton congratulating him for his contributions to dentistry.

“It was the first time that many in the audience had ever seen Herb speechless,” says Jan Feldman (SDM’70), a graduate of the endodontics program.

A past president of the American Association of Endodontists, a former director of the American Board of Endodontics, and a past first vice president of the American Dental Association, Schilder wrote scores of scientific articles and textbook chapters and lectured in more than 25 countries and on every continent.

He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and received a doctor of dental surgery degree from New York University and a certificate of advanced graduate study from Temple University. A member of the BU faculty since 1959, he became a professor and the chairman of the endodontics department in 1963. He retired in 2003.

He and his wife, Joan (GRS’77), have been major contributors to SDM’s endondontics program. “It enriches us to give back to the community,” he told the newspaper BU Today in 1996. “We’ve spent so much time at Boston University — it was a logical place for us to make a significant gift.”

Schilder is survived by his wife and son. Services will take place at Temple Israel, 477 Longwood Ave., Boston, on Thursday, February 2, at 10 a.m., with burial at Temple Israel Cemetery in Wakefield. There will be a memorial observance following the burial and continuing on Friday from 2 to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 2 to 8 p.m. at his home in Newton. In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made to the Edward Baylor Schilder Endowment Fund for Special Needs Initiatives, c/o Combined Jewish Philanthropies, or to the Alzheimer’s Association, or to the Herbert Schilder Scholarship Fund, Boston University School of Dental Medicine.