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October 2018
Volume 39, Issue 9

A Tribute to Dr. D. Walter Cohen

As founder of The Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry, D. Walter Cohen, DDS, occupies a preeminent position in our history-and our collective memories. At the time of his death, Dr. Cohen was still serving as editor emeritus of this publication, contributing his insights about the changing profession. In addition, he was dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine and chancellor emeritus of Drexel University College of Medicine.

Philadelphia Origins

Born in Philadelphia, Dr. Cohen attained his DDS from the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine in 1950. After a research fellowship in pathology and periodontics at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston under the tutelage of Dr. Henry Goldman, he returned to Penn as an assistant instructor in 1951, becoming a full professor in 1963. Dr. Cohen helped establish the department of periodontics and was its first chairman. During his 35-year career at Penn, he also served as Dean of the dental school from 1972-1983.

For many years, he also practiced periodontics in Philadelphia in the same practice his father began more than 70 years ago, and then in partnership with Compendium's current editor-in-chief, Dr. Louis F. Rose, until Dr. Cohen's passing.

The Pennsylvania Experiment

During his time as Dean, Dr. Cohen established a residency known as the Pennsylvania Experiment. As he explained in a 2012 interview, "This was a program that completely changed Penn's approach to educating dental students and is described in detail in our book, Educating the Dentist of the Future: The Pennsylvania Experiment.I would trace its real beginnings to 1971, when the University of Pennsylvania was preparing for a major campaign of programs for the 1980s. At that time, I was meeting with a search committee on my candidacy for the deanship, and I had to convince the administration that the dental school would have a positive future amid concern that the caliber of the dental school wasn't high enough. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it demonstrated to the university that the dental school was on the right track.

"However, the Penn Experiment really began to take shape when I took the faculty away for a retreat, where we saw an opportunity to do something unique. There we came to the realization that we were not succeeding well enough at what should have been our mission-educating highly competent generalists. Our solution was to devise a different approach. Students were placed in what we called general practice groups, in which they remained for their third and fourth years. In the traditional system, the third- and fourth-year students had certain requirements; for example, they had to complete X number of restorations, Y number of root canals, Z number of dentures. In the new group system, we did away with these requirements and had the students complete the needs of the family of patients who were assigned to them, working with an outstanding faculty member as their group leader."

Dr. Cohen continued: "We also put the students and faculty in a different relationship; instead of having the student assist while the faculty member delivered care to the patient, they switched roles. It became apparent that we needed to change the ratio of 1 to 10 faculty-to-students to 1 to 5. However, this would mean we would either have to double the faculty or half the 160-member student body, which is what we eventually did, although some federal grants were contingent on keeping the student enrollment at least 140. We also changed the dental school curriculum, eliminating a lot of duplication, thus enabling students to start their clinical experience in the middle of their second year. We put the entire student body into different groups-including some in faculty-based practice, which provided a new source of income to help offset the tuition lost when we cut the size of the student body. We also created a program called Model A for economically disadvantaged patients, which added a fifth-year general practice residency (GPR), called Model B, which was the first time a fifth-year GPR was discussed."

Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine and Dentistry

After his term as Dean at Penn, Dr. Cohen became President of the Medical College of Pennsylvania, now Drexel University College of Medicine. There he helped create the Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine and Dentistry (ELAM).

"Among the opportunities I recall with pride was one that enabled women to ascend to more senior positions both in medicine and dentistry," he explained. "I had left the University of Pennsylvania Dental School to become president of the Medical College of Pennsylvania in the 1980s, when there was a glass ceiling that was obvious in both academic disciplines. With a $75,000 grant from the Jessie Ball DuPont Foundation, we first surveyed American deans in both medicine and in dentistry to verify the need, then started what was called the Executive Leadership Program for Women in Academic Medicine and Dentistry-ELAM. This one-year, three-session program began with a group of 45 women-40 from medicine and five from dentistry-who were associate professors or above. By 2012, we've had over 700 graduates from this program, and they have been eminently successful-many of them have become chairs, and many have become deans. In fact, one third of the deans in dental schools today are graduates of the ELAM program, and some have gone even higher-including one university president. It's been very gratifying to see how this program has changed their lives, as has been recounted many times."

D. Walter Cohen Middle East Center for Dental Education

In 1997, Dr. Cohen established the D. Walter Cohen Middle East Center for Dental Education at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which offered an exchange program between dental students at Hebrew University and Palestinian students at the Al-Quds School of Dentistry in Jerusalem.

"Back in the 1950s, when they were talking about starting a dental school in Israel, I was approached about starting a faculty and fellowship exchange between Penn and Hebrew University to offer their faculty advanced training in different specialties," Dr. Cohen said. "After raising almost $500,000, we brought over 18 full-time faculty members to train at Penn in specialties including endodontics, periodontics, perio-prosthesis, and oral surgery. We became very close; it really became the Penn-Israel Project. Then in 1996, at a meeting in Israel, I suggested that one way we could bridge the peace was by possibly starting a Middle East center for dental education, where dentists throughout the Middle East could come to Jerusalem and spend six weeks or more taking advanced courses from the faculty at the Hebrew University Hadassah School. They liked that idea and the program got started, and that was the beginning of the Middle East Center for Dental Education. For several years we had dentists from all over the Middle East-including Gaza, Jordan, Cyprus, and Turkey-enrolled in six-week courses, and all of them were very grateful for the education. Then, several more dentists enrolled in full-time graduate programs leading to advanced degrees-the Center was growing.

"In 2005, the deans at the Hebrew University and the Al-Quds, which is the Palestinian dental school on the West Bank, got together and thought that this would be a great way to exchange dental students and faculty between the two schools as a way to promote both peace and dental education. Now the Al-Quds dental school has four or five of their faculty taking two- to three-year, full-time programs in various dental specialties at the Hebrew University. They will then go back to Al-Quds to teach what they have learned. The Center really is living up to its mission to ‘bridge the peace' through dental education, which is extremely gratifying."

Local and Global Achievements

Dr. Cohen's expertise and commitment were recognized internationally. He was presented the Legion of Merit Award from the French government for his contributions to France's dental education. He was only the third American to earn honorary membership into the British Society of Periodontology. He received honorary degrees from universities around the world, including Boston University, the Hebrew University in Strasbourg, the University of Detroit, Gratz College, and Carol Davilla University in Romania.

Dr. Cohen was one of only 23 dentists who have been elected to the prestigious Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He was a Diplomate of the American Board of Periodontology and was awarded a Gold Medal from the American Academy of Periodontology. He also served as President of the American Society of Periodontists in 1967. In addition, he was the first presidential scholar of the University of California, San Francisco.

In 1990, Ambassador Walter Annenberg endowed the D. Walter Cohen Professorship and Chair in Periodontics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

In addition to Educating the Dentist of the Future: The Pennsylvania Experiment, Dr. Cohen authored and contributed to 22 textbooks and more than 130 articles, including a series of papers on the relationship of diabetes mellitus to periodontal disease.

His local commitments included serving as chair of the Pennsylvania Diabetes Academy and president of the National Museum of American Jewish History. His board memberships included the Philadelphia Orchestra, Thomas Jefferson University, Project HOME, Philadelphia University, Thomas Jefferson Hospital, the Jewish Publication Society, Drexel University College of Medicine, Gratz College, the National Disease Research Interchange, the Hadassah Medical Organization, and more.

All of us at The Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry feel privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from Dr. Cohen's guidance over the years. Despite his innumerable academic and organizational accomplishments, we feel certain that his greatest achievements were as a mentor to many and, above all, one of the great humanists in all his endeavors.

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