student dentists examine child at home
Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine students conduct a home examination. (Photo courtesy of Department of Pediatric Dentristry Department.)

Celebrating 125-year legacy of community dental service

Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine marks milestone with medical museum exhibit

Reaching out into the community with dental care is hardly a new idea among Northeast Ohio dentists or students, faculty and staff at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine.

It is a tradition of caring displayed handsomely in the new “Cleveland Dentistry Re-Visited” exhibition at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History on the Case Western Reserve campus.

As the dental school celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, the milestone mirrors a legacy of overall service by local dentists, from in-school dental exams that began in 1909 to the modern-day Case Western Reserve dental van that delivers care to elderly patients in Cleveland-area nursing homes and senior centers.

School of Dental Medicine Dean Kenneth B. Chance said that the preservation of that legacy is intentional and important.

“I continue to be pleased by the hard work of all of our students, faculty and staff who have led the efforts in our community programs,” he said. “It is critical to expose our dental students to the needs of underserved children, the elderly and the communities in which they live.”

Historical photographs on museum wall.
Some of the photos on display for “Cleveland Dentistry Re-Visited.”

That long-standing focus on community is especially evident in a photograph collection depicting a turn-of-the-century dental hygiene campaign and on-site exams in Cleveland elementary school visits from 1909-1919. (See the current issue of think magazine for some of the exhibit photos).

“Dentists have always been concerned about the community,” said Dittrick Chief Curator James Edmonson. “We might think this is something new, when in fact, it’s something old.”

The Dittrick exhibition, which has been called “a befitting tribute” to the School of Dental Medicine by Dean Chance, also features some of the collection of Joseph Chester (DEN ’85). It opened in October in the museum in conjunction with the 125th anniversary and homecoming events within the school and across campus Oct. 5-8.

The free exhibition in the Theodore Castele MD and Family Gallery runs through Dec. 31.

Real-time evidence of community caring isn’t hard to find, either. Today, the CWRU School of Dental Medicine’s Department of Community Dentistry delivers care to the community through such programs as:

  • Healthy Smiles: A home dentistry collaborative with University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital and The Centers for Families and Children, a social-services agency in Cleveland. The mobile program has reached 250 families each summer since 2015, mostly children enrolled in Head Start programs who cannot make it to on-site care. That initial program began in 2007 and has brought dental care to more than 35,000 children, officials said.
  • Safe Smiles: Another partnership, this one with the Cleveland Dental Society and Dr. Thomas Coreno at the Tappen Dental Clinic at UH. More than 300 Cleveland Metropolitan School District high school football players have been fitted with personalized mouth guards to protect their teeth during practices and games.
  • Lifelong Smiles: The Geriatric Dentistry Program at the dental school rolled out its 38-foot van in August 2015. Since then, dental students and dentists have seen more than 300 patients in Cleveland-area nursing homes, medical centers and senior centers. Another 1,025 patients have received oral health education materials.
  • Give Kids A Smile Day: The school also participates in the American Dental Association’s annual national program that provides free oral health care to underserved children. In February, nearly 400 students from Cleveland schools received free oral exams and dental care from faculty and students.

Edmonson, who wrote a history of local dentistry for The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, noted that dental education here extends to just after the Civil War.

He writes in the history that dental education “actually began in the Medical Department of Western Reserve University, where Lewis Buffet lectured on oral and dental pathology and oral surgery from 1874-81,” but that the first dental school proper opened at Western Reserve in 1892.

Despite some missteps in the first few decades as the school traded hands from public to private ownership and back, “in its first 80 years of existence, WRU graduated one-third of all dentists in Ohio and two-thirds of the dentists in northeast Ohio,” Edmonson writes.

Since its inception, the School of Dental Medicine has conferred degrees on nearly 5,000 graduates.

This article was originally published Oct. 4, 2017.