Esther Wilkins, Dental Hygiene’s Matriarch, Dies at 100

Richard Gawel
Photo by Yoon S. Byun for Tufts University.


Photo by Yoon S. Byun for Tufts University.

Esther Wilkins, RDH, DMD, died on Monday, December 12, just 3 days after celebrating her 100th birthday. Upon her passing, the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) called her “dental hygiene’s matriarch.”

Wilkins was the author of the 1959 textbook, Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist. Its 12th edition was published earlier this year. According to the ADHA, more than 905 of the dental hygiene education programs in the world include it on their syllabus.

Wilkins earned a certificate in dental hygiene from the Forsyth School for Dental Hygienists in Boston, Mass, in 1939. She worked in private practice and in a school clinic while pursuing a doctorate in dentistry, earning her degree from the Tufts School of Dental Medicine in 1949.

In 1950, Wilkins single-handedly established the University of Washington Dental Hygiene School program, developing the curriculum, teaching most courses, and serving as its director for more than 10 years.

“Dental hygiene lost a remarkable woman,” said University of Washington School of Dentistry Professor Emeritus Norma Wells. “Over the years we have given thanks to her in many ways as she brought dental hygiene education, an emerging profession then, to Seattle.”

Wilkins returned to Tufts to obtain a specialty in periodontology in 1964. Following graduation, she served in the periodontology department faculty at Tufts, teaching periodontal instrumentation well into the 2000s during a 45-year tenure there.

During her career, Wilkins developed more than 800 continuing education courses for oral healthcare professionals and presented them in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere around the world.

Known for her love of teaching, Wilkins often took time to speak with students and take photographs with them at professional meetings. In fact, the ADHA Annual Conference often would include the student quiz program, “Are You Smarter Than Dr. Esther Wilkins?”

“If you are a student in an associate degree program, I encourage you to continue and pursue your bachelor’s degree,” Wilkins said in a 2005 interview with the ADHA. “Then move on to your master’s degree. You must read, read, read, and keep up with the current research and literature.”

America’s ToothFairy honored her commitment to teaching with its Esther Wilkins Education Program. Launched with a generous gift that she made to the organization, the program provides dental hygiene professionals and students with educational tools and lessons for their outreach programs, supporting their role as oral health champions, leaders, and educators.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Dr. Esther Wilkins. She was a beloved teacher, mentor, and tireless champion for oral hygiene and children’s health,” said Jill Malmgren, executive director of America’s ToothFairy.

“Her generous support of America’s ToothFairy made it possible for volunteer dental hygienists and dental hygiene students to deliver oral health education and preventive services to thousands of underserved children,” Malmgren said.

Wilkins also remembered her roots as a dental student by establishing a pair of scholarship funds at Tufts School of Dental Medicine in 2008. And in 2010, she paid tribute to her time as a general science undergrad at Simmons College too by founding the $100,000 Esther M. Wilkins Endowed Scholarship there. The ADHA Institute for Oral Health awards scholarships in her name as well. 

With a belief that taking an active role in the hygienist community was vital and beneficial both professionally and personally, Wilkins also encouraged dental hygienists to join the ADHA and attend its meetings.

“No man is an island, and many dental hygienists work alone,” she said. “They may not have another dental hygienist in the practice that they can talk with. So volunteer. There are many opportunities to volunteer in your local dental hygiene association and in community health.”

Additionally, Wilkins was slated to receive the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine Dean’s Medal during a ceremony saluting her and other faculty on Friday, December 16. The award recognizes individuals who have demonstrated loyalty, service, and generosity. The school awarded the Dean’s Medal to her posthumously.

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