July/August 2019
Volume 40, Issue 7

A Tireless Ambassador for Oral Healthcare, a True Friend for All Seasons

Harold C. Slavkin, DDS

To honor the life and passing of D. Walter Cohen, DDS, the Founding Editor of Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry, the journal is featuring a series of tributes from various members of the oral healthcare profession with whom he had a significant relationship. This installment is from Harold C. Slavkin, DDS.

When I first met Walter Cohen in the mid-1970s, we made an instant connection. At the time, he was serving as Dean of the School of Dental Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. I was part of an ad hoc National Institutes of Health (NIH) review team evaluating a research Program Project grant at Penn. Walter made an excellent presentation that reflected his knowledge and appreciation for the proposed studies and his enthusiasm for science. He spoke of science as if it were a verb-as in doing science. Further expressing how science must inform clinical healthcare, Walter championed the need for cooperation, communication, and collaboration between his faculty and those in other schools at Penn. Finally, his presentation also emphasized Penn's commitment to research. And so began our 45-year friendship.

CE Development on the Train

A couple of years later, as Walter and I were on a train from Washington, D.C., to New York, we shared our concern that scientific evidence was critically needed to herald a biological understanding among oral health clinicians, and wondered what we might contribute. Over the next few hours, Walter's insights, experience, and enthusiasm guided our intense discussion on the possibilities.

We outlined a 12-volume continuing education (CE) course called "Advances in Oral Biology," that would cover a salient topic each month (eg, genetics, immunology, microbiology, pharmacology, etc). We envisioned a package with educational resources exploring each topic, including color slides, an accompanying audio tape, and a 20-page manual with references. Before the train reached our destination, Walter agreed to handle production, distribution, and CE authorizations (with the credits provided by Penn and the University of Southern California), and I agreed to select dental scholars for each of the 12 volumes and to edit the project. After about a year of writing and production, in 1979 we completed the series. Among the course offerings were such titles as "Pathogenesis of periodontal diseases," "Craniofacial developmental biology," and "Current concepts in human nutrition, human development and the prevention of disease."

Key Supporter of Dental Research

Our collaborative friendship continued. Soon after becoming the Director of the National Institute for Dental Research (NIDR) in 1995, I shared with Walter the need to create a "Friends of the NIDR" to represent the various stakeholders in the future success of the Institute (eg, patient advocacy groups, organized oral health professional groups, industry leaders, disease advocates, etc). He immediately volunteered to work with Lois Cohen (Deputy Director of Extramural Programs for NIDR), John Zapp (Executive Director of the American Dental Association), Michael Alfano (Professor and Dean Emeritus, New York University), Howard Landesman (Professor and Dean Emeritus, University of Colorado), and others to make this happen. By this time, Walter had completed his tenures as Professor and Dean Emeritus of the dental school at Penn, Chancellor Emeritus of the Drexel University College of Medicine, and President and Chancellor of the Medical College of Pennsylvania. His significant leadership and administrative roles, along with his untiring efforts in support of the NIDR, were enormous assets.

In 1997, the "Friends of the NIDR" became a reality as a non-profit 501(c)(3). The next year, it sponsored the 50th anniversary of the NIDR, as well as a gala that included the official name change to the National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).

Writer and Editor

Walter never hesitated to offer his help. Beyond his leadership and administrative roles in healthcare, he was also internationally recognized for his well-earned credentials as a clinical scholar in periodontology, with more than 200 published articles. During the late 1990s, Walter was invited to serve as one of the editors for the book Periodontal Medicine (along with Louis Rose, Robert Genco, and Brian Mealey). He asked if I would join him in writing Chapter 1, "Periodontal Disease and Systemic Disease," and we met to frame and outline our chapter, dividing the writing and editing. The book was published in 2000 by B.C. Decker, with other authoritative contributions from thought leaders such as Kenneth Kornman, Michael Newman, Steven Offenbacher, James Beck, Barbara Steinberg, Michael Glick, Frank Scannapieco, Marjorie Jeffcoat, Joel Epstein, Terry Rees, Sebastian Ciancio, and Edwin Zinman.

Many Roles, Much Beloved

Many people loved and admired this extraordinary man during his remarkably productive 91 years. "We've lost a giant in dentistry," Dr. Theodore P. Croll, a Doylestown, Pennsylvania, dentist, wrote of Walter on a Legacy.com condolences page. "Scholar, teacher, sage, conscience of the profession. Eyes, brains, hands, and heart…that was Walter. Rest in peace, dear friend and brilliant colleague."

Walter played many roles during his lifetime and is remembered as a friend, humanist, teacher, clinical scholar, father, and husband. His relentless efforts to leave the world better than he found it are represented by his advancement of leadership roles for women in the health professions, in the D. Walter Cohen Middle East Center for Dental Education at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and so very much more.

His legacy remains in the minds and hearts of many, and when I think back on our first auspicious conversations, I am reminded of C.S. Lewis: "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'"

Harold C. Slavkin, DDS

Dr. Slavkin is presently Professor and Dean Emeritus at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry, University of Southern California (USC), in Los Angeles, California. In June 2014 he retired from USC after 46 years on the full-time academic faculty. From 1995-2000, he served as Director of the NIDCR with the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, and was instrumental in the completion of the first Surgeon General's Report to focus exclusively on craniofacial and oral health.

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