Faculty Spotlight: “The Paul Revere of Modern-Day Dentistry” – Dr. Myron Allukian Jr. Reflects on 50-Plus Year Career After Receiving Lifetime Achievement Award
Dr. Myron Allukian Jr., GSDM clinical assistant professor of health policy & health services research, is widely known in the public health field as a visionary and “The Social Conscience of Dentistry” — a nickname he earned over the course of his 58-year career thanks to his passionate efforts on behalf of the public, the underserved, and vulnerable populations.
Last year, Allukian’s profound influence on public health was officially recognized when he was awarded the Massachusetts Public Health Association (MPHA)’s highest honor: the Paul Revere Award for Lifetime Achievement. Allukian is the first dentist to receive this recognition from MPHA.
“It’s a huge honor [to receive the Paul Revere Award] because oral health normally doesn’t get recognized by medicine and decision makers in healthcare; oral health is viewed as a very small part of the health needs of the people in this country,” Allukian said. “I keep saying it is a ‘neglected epidemic’ and we need to do a better job educating the public and decision makers about the oral health needs of the American people.”
How Traumatic Childhood Dental Experiences led to a Dental Education
As a child, becoming a dentist or health professional was the last thing Allukian would have ever predicted for his future. However, his drive to make a difference for his community began based on his upbringing in the South End – an at-the-time low-income neighborhood of Boston where he lived from the 1940s to the 1960s. Allukian and his peers frequently suffered from dental pain caused by tooth decay and infection. He remembers being horrified by witnessing his 16-year-old friend getting all his teeth removed at Boston City Hospital.
“When my parents first took me as a young child to a dentist, it was torture,” Allukian said. “I used to sit in the dental chair and say to myself, ‘How could someone have a job like this where they torture little kids like me?’ They did not use anesthesia in those days, and it would be excruciating pain. My father would have to stand next to the dental chair to get me to keep my mouth open while the dentist was working on me. Terrible, horrendous experience. I never forgot it.”
Neither of Allukian’s parents graduated from high school, and both immigrated to the U.S. from Turkish Armenia (his mother survived the Armenian genocide) in search of a better life for themselves and their future children. Despite Allukian’s negative experiences during these early visits to the dentist, his parents valued health care and were determined to get him treatment for his oral health needs as part of their quest to give him a healthy life.
After having surgery for a growth between his permanent incisors, his parents found an orthodontist who treated him with grace and kindness – his first positive experience in dentistry. Allukian credits these experiences for treating future patients with compassion and dignity.
“I was amazed that there was a dentist that you can go to and there is no pain, and he is not torturing you,” Allukian said. “That orthodontist changed my image of dentistry.”
His journey to becoming a dentist was unconventional. In 1956, he went to the then Tufts College – now Tufts University – where he majored in psychology and became the captain and MVP of the wrestling team. (On October 28, Allukian will be inducted as an Outstanding American in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame by the Massachusetts Chapter at Gillette Stadium. He will be the first dentist ever to be recognized in the history of the organization.)
After graduating from Tufts College in 1960, he went with his cousin, out to California, and ended up spending the whole summer on Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, California – trying to get into movies and continue his career as a professional juggler working in night clubs under the stage name Myron the Manual Mystic, a vocation he began soon after high school.
In September 1960, while at Muscle Beach, he had a life-changing phone call with the dean of the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) School of Dental Medicine, offering him the chance to join the incoming class. Allukian said yes, and within two days, he was a first-year dental student at Penn.
When he graduated from dental school in 1964, he was undecided about what he wanted to do next. He ultimately decided on the military, thinking it would give him a chance to travel and experience different aspects of dentistry.
Allukian initially enlisted in the Navy “to see the world,” he said, but the Navy stationed him in Philadelphia, so he then volunteered for the 3rd Marine Division. He was first sent to Okinawa, Japan, where he worked in a dental clinic with other young dentists straight out of dental school. It was a great learning opportunity that he thoroughly enjoyed, however, to his surprise, he said, he was soon relocated to Vietnam as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was ramping up, where he served at the 3rd Marine Division field tent hospital for mass casualties, outside of Danang.
He recalled the field hospital as a “horrendous situation.” In the mornings, he provided basic dental care, but at night they treated gravely injured Marines. Allukian and the other dentists had to assist the three physicians in doing everything they could to keep these Marines alive. He remembers seeing up to 250 Marines at one time needing urgent medical care.
He said he frequently wondered if he would ever leave Vietnam alive.
“We had to help to keep these kids alive,”Allukian said.
While his mornings and evenings were accounted for, Allukian said the afternoons were too hot to treat routine dental patients. During his “free time,” he ended up creating a “people-to-people” dental program, bringing a team of dentists to the three different religious-based orphanages in the Danang area, as well as schools, refugee camps, and villages, to deliver dental care to children who had never received any care before. The team often risked their safety by going beyond the secure border to treat approximately 30 to 100 patients per visit.
“I did not care what their religion was. Kids are kids, they were in pain and had infections, I wanted to help them,” he said. “It was a very humbling experience “This was the kind of dentist I wanted to be, someone who makes a real difference, getting kids out of pain and infection, and giving them, some hope that they can live a normal life.”
From Post Military Education to Boston Dental Director
When Allukian finished his tour with the Navy in 1966, he returned to the United States with pictures documenting his work in Vietnamese orphanages, a friend encouraged him to meet with the chair of ecological dentistry (dental public health) at Harvard, Dr. James M. Dunning. Dunning urged him to pursue public health as a career, leading Allukian to enroll in the three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine which included a master’s program at the Harvard School of Public Health. He said this program changed his life.
During his residency program, Allukian was asked to speak at a legislative hearing on fluoridation. Allukian compared the tooth decay rates of Massachusetts and Vietnamese teenagers – and discovered that Massachusetts teenagers had much higher rates of tooth decay. His report became headline news, he said.
“To my shock, Massachusetts teenagers had six times more tooth decay than Vietnamese teenagers,” Allukian said. “I could not believe it, and I said [at the time] ‘One of the major reasons is because we don’t have fluoridation in our state. Massachusetts was only 7 percent fluoridated at the time. Whereas in Vietnam, they use a fish sauce on all their food [that is] very high in fluoride and they do not have the junk sugar laden foods and candies like we have [in the United States.]”
Following Allukian’s presentation, the fluoridation bill passed and more than 100 Massachusetts communities soon ordered fluoridation. Fluoridation’s contribution to the large decline in cavities in the United States since the 1960s resulted in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) naming community water fluoridation one of the top 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. According to CDC, community water fluoridation is “the most efficient and cost-effective way to deliver fluoride to everyone in a community, regardless of their age, income, or education.”
During his fellowship, Allukian also helped the Massachusetts General Hospital develop a community health center dental program in Charlestown, one of the first dental programs in the U.S., and then became the chief of the program after completing his fellowship in 1969. Subsequently, after a national search, in 1970, he was selected to be the dental director for the City of Boston. Allukian held this position for 34 years during which he worked on countless projects in Massachusetts and the nation.
Allukian noted he could not have accomplished all that he did during this time without the help of the many students, volunteers, organizations, agencies, dental and hygiene schools, that helped him successfully fulfill his vision and goals.
Allukian said he views education as an essential pillar to dentistry. One of his most notable educational achievements was when Allukian began an advanced education graduate dentistry (AEGD) program with four residents based in the Boston area working with Lutheran Medical Center in 2001. Now, there are 17 residents in different community health centers in the AGED program working with NYU Langone Health. He said many GSDM graduates have been in this program over the years.
Dr. Raul Garcia, professor and chair of health policy & health services research, has known Allukian for more than 45 years, first meeting him when Garcia was a dental student at Harvard School of Dental Medicine and Allukian was a part-time faculty member presenting a lecture on community water fluoridation.
“My first impression of him then was that he was a very intelligent, energetic, and passionate individual in regard to oral health and public health,” Garcia said. “In some ways, it was inspiring to see someone like him with that kind of passion and desire to improve health at the level of populations and not just at the level of individuals.”
Garcia said the Massachusetts Public Health Association’s decision to recognize Allukian with the Paul Revere award is a great reminder to the public health community that oral health is part of overall public health.
“[Dentists] need to take that privilege they’ve been given of providing a service to populations to actually do good and be proactive in doing good,” Garcia said. “He is well deserving of the title of [The Social Conscience of Dentistry].”
When Garcia became the chair of the Department of Health Policy & Health Services Research in 1996, one of his top priorities was to bring on Allukian as a formal member of GSDM faculty so that Allukian could use his expertise to build up and strength the dental public health residency program. Allukian had previously been a lecturer for public health and community dentistry at GSDM multiple times; he officially became a clinical assistant professor of health policy & health services research in November 1999.
Nowadays, he teaches on a part-time basis in the department’s dental public health advanced education program. Garcia said former residents frequently speak highly of their class experience with Allukian.
“He has those qualities of wanting to transmit his knowledge and his approach to public health issues to the next generation of trainees,” Garcia said. “Now, he’s been around doing it so long, he’s got many next generations that he’s trained and really inspired.”
Dr. Mary Tavares DPH 81, director of GSDM’s Advanced Education Program in Dental Public Health and clinical professor of health policy & health service research, has known Allukian for decades. During that time, she said she has witnessed him being a visionary for dental public health initiatives, noting his work on community water fluoridation.
“He’s super focused on community water fluoridation,” Tavares said. “He’s very responsible for getting the Boston area fluoridated. He is such a watchdog to make sure communities who want to de-fluoridate, he is right there helping the advocates who are trying to keep fluoridation in the water. If they want to fluoridate, he is right there helping them to do that.”
Over the course of his career, Allukian has helped many internationally educated dentists find their footing in the United States. One of Allukian’s mentees, Fuad Tawmeh DMD 23, said he deeply appreciated Allukian’s warmth and willingness to help shape his dental journey.
Prior to relocating to the United States, Tawmeh accumulated a decade of dental experience working as a dentist, oral implantologist, and medical director in the United Arab Emirates. He said Allukian aided him in his transition to the U.S., inspiring Tawmeh to pursue a career in academic dentistry and research following commencement.
“Dr. Allukian has had a significant impact on my life and dental career,” Tawmeh said. “When I first met Dr. Allukian, I was still new to the United States and was still trying to find my way in the dental profession in the United States. Dr. Allukian recognized my passion for dentistry and took me under his wing, providing me with various opportunities to assist and get involved in public health issues, presentations, policies, and research.”
Tawmeh said Allukian’s pioneering work in oral health and health policy has demonstrated how dentistry and oral health cannot be ignored in the healthcare industry. Tawmeh said the recognition bestowed upon Allukian by the Massachusetts Public Health Association will influence the next generation of dentists to get involved in public health policies, programs, and research.
“The recognition of Dr. Allukian with the Paul Revere Award will definitely inspire other dentists to become more involved in their communities and to think more broadly about their role in healthcare and health policy,” Tawmeh said. “By highlighting the important work that dentists can do to promote public health and prevent disease, this award may encourage more dentists to pursue similar initiatives and make a positive impact on their communities.”
Modern Day Paul Revere of Dentistry
At the end of the day, Allukian could not help but note the characteristics he shares with the Award’s namesake. Unbeknownst to most, Paul Revere was a powerful figure in the colonial health field, by helping establish the Boston Board of Health, serving as its first president, working as an amateur dentist – wiring dentures made of walrus ivory or animal teeth into his patients’ mouths – and becoming the first person to practice forensic dentistry in the U.S.
Paul Revere is most famously known for helping alert patriots in April 1775 that British troops were approaching Lexington. Allukian said he spent much of his lengthy career alerting communities and decision makers to the importance of oral health and fluoridation.
“Being the first dentist to receive this award is a great honor and it gives visibility to oral health and dentistry,” Allukian said. “It is named after Paul Revere, and interestingly, he practiced dentistry. He was also the chair of the first board of health in the U.S., the Boston Board of Health. Years later, I worked for the Boston Board of Health for 34 years. Revere lived in the North End, and I lived in the South End. He had eight children; I have six children. We had many similarities.”
One could say Allukian is a Modern-Day Paul Revere of Dentistry.