Esther Wilkins Fo

Dr. Esther Wilkins

Aug. 1, 2002
Several years ago, I decided that it was time to start presenting continuing education programs. I had spent 20-something years of my career listening to hundreds of programs, as well as coordinating various CE programs in my area. Since then, I have developed, collaborated, and presented several different programs for continuing education courses.

Several years ago, I decided that it was time to start presenting continuing education programs. I had spent 20-something years of my career listening to hundreds of programs, as well as coordinating various CE programs in my area. Since then, I have developed, collaborated, and presented several different programs for continuing education courses. During the process, I have met some special people along the way. Many are fellow speakers, and this outstanding group of people possesses a variety of backgrounds and interests. However, we share the same goals of educating other hygienists and dental team members.

After one particular meeting, I decided that it would be a great idea for others to know these speakers in a more personal manner, rather than just "from the podium." I approached RDH with my idea, and this column was born. Here, you will meet a group of people who not only inspire us, but also educate us in a variety of fashions. I look forward to bringing the personal side of these presenters to you. If a particular speaker inspires you, I hope you'll let me know who it is so I can consider him or her for a future column.

So let's meet these speakers "from the podium!"

For the inaugural edition of this column, I thought it fitting to interview someone near and dear to all within dental hygiene. Her textbook, Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist, is the bible for dental hygiene students. Even those of us who have practiced for many years still refer to her book often! Esther Wilkins, RDH, DMD, is the "hygienist's hygienist!" Esther, as we all know her, is a remarkable woman, who has advanced the art and science of dental hygiene to its fullest degree. We have read her textbook and maybe even listened to her presentations, but now let's get to know the "real" Esther! To prepare this column, I asked her a few questions and have put her answers into paragraph form for you to enjoy.

Dr. Esther Wilkins is a native of Massachusetts, having been born in Chelmsford, but claims her hometown as Tyngsborough. She attended Lowell High School and Simmons College in Boston where she was a general science major. By her senior year, she wasn't sure if she liked the available options, but she knew that "Simmons girls always were prepared to make a living." In one of her elective courses, a public health program, she learned about dental hygienists. Since Simmons is located near the Forsyth Dental Infirmary (its name at the time), she walked over one day during lunch, liked what she saw, and ended up being accepted the following year to the Forsyth School for Dental Hygienists.

Her first clinical position was in Manchester-by-the-Sea, a beautiful coastal community north of Boston. Dr. Frank Willis, a general practitioner, employed her. Dr. Willis and Esther would walk to the local school's dental clinic four mornings a week during the school year and provide dental care for children in grades 1 to 8. The rest of the week and the summers were spent in private practice. Esther wishes that all new dental hygiene graduates could experience practicing with a sincere, honest, and devoted dentist like Dr. Willis, and know what a "real" dental practice can mean to a community.

From there, she decided that a dental degree would be her next option. She became a student at the Tufts Dental School in Boston, which was followed by an internship at the Eastman Dental Dispensary in Rochester, N.Y. Upon completion of the program, Esther then became the first director of dental hygiene at the University of Washington School of Dentistry in Seattle. She even passed the Washington Dental Board (a major accomplishment), but never really practiced dentistry because her days were occupied with teaching and administrative duties for the dental hygiene department.

At the time, the only dental hygiene textbooks were outdated. The dental hygiene instructors at the dental school produced their own patient care handbook that grew to be 1 1/2 inches thick of duplicated pages. After several years, by invitation of the publisher, the Lea and Febiger Company of Philadelphia, it became the first edition of the Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist.

A few years after the book was first published, Esther decided to specialize in periodontics and returned to Tufts. She has been there ever since as a member of the department of periodontology.

Esther's first official continuing education course was in May 1967 when she was invited to plan and participate in the New York State Dental Hygienists' Association Annual Meeting. Along with Roxie Stitzer, the director of dental hygiene at Broome Community College in New York, they provided hygienists with a program on instrumentation that was a pioneering effort at the time. From there, more invitations followed. Over the years, Esther has presented more than 600 programs ranging from all-day to two-hour programs. With her May 2001 program in Sheridan, Wyo., Esther has presented programs in all 50 states - not to mention programs in Canada, Japan, China, Saudi Arabia, Ireland, Italy, Israel, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa!

According to Esther, her favorite topics to present at continuing education programs are related to dental hygiene prevention, care of patients with periodontal infections, and dental caries (especially root caries). She believes that dental hygienists truly are the prevention specialists. There is constantly new research that can change the outlook of dental hygiene care, and hygienists need to be updating their knowledge and skills constantly.

The most satisfaction that Esther receives while doing programs comes when the audience gives positive responses and evaluations. When participants are eager to learn and actively participate in the program, it is easy to tell that they are interested. The best part for her, though, is making new friends from around the world, especially with students in dental hygiene programs.

One of the most embarrassing moments for Esther was at a program where she was taking a break from the podium. She still had her microphone on while she was in the ladies' room talking. Luckily, several people from the course overheard her and came running in to rescue her! A memorable moment occurred at a course in Memphis, Tenn. At the lunch break, the program director made a point to mention that everyone needed to be back promptly at 1 p.m. As Esther was getting ready to turn on the first afternoon slide with the lights dimmed, music started and on the stage entered an Elvis impersonator. He invited the audience to visit him at Graceland and sang "All Shook Up!"

When asked what her favorite things to do are, Esther promptly replied, "Read, dance, travel, and sightseeing, especially in famous places like the Panama Canal, Ayer's Rock in Australia, the Everglades in Florida, and La Scala in Milan." Which brings me to another point about Esther: If you don't already know this, she is a great party lady! Get her on the dance floor and watch out!

It was an honor and privilege to work on this particular column. I thank Esther for agreeing to be the inaugural speaker for this, and for all of the support she has given me. Esther, dental hygiene thanks you for all that you have done to promote the art, science, and practice of dental hygiene. You are truly remarkable!

If you are interested in thanking Esther personally for her contributions to the profession, a Web area has been established to do just that. Daniel Waskie, RDH, Patricia Buss, RDH, and Jane Weiner, RDH, are organizers of who have set aside an area of their Web site called "Friends of Esther Wilkins." This is a spot where you can thank Esther for her contributions to our profession and add your personal comments. The address is

Dr. Esther Wilkins' presentations in late 2002 include:

  • Sept. 20-21 in Helena, Mont., for the Montana Dental Hygienists' Association
  • Oct. 26 in Baltimore, Md., for the Maryland Dental Hygienists' Association
  • Nov. 8-9 in Bari, Italy, for Dental Hygienists of Italy

Esther has declined several other invitations to speak this fall because she is working on the new upcoming edition of Clinical Practice of the Dental Hygienist. Naturally, we can't wait for that to be published!

Ann-Marie C. DePalma, RDH, BS is a practicing hygienist in a periodontal-implant practice. She is a graduate of the Forsyth School for Dental Hygienists, is active in the Massachusetts Dental Hygienists' Association, and is a Fellow of the Association of Dental Implant Auxillaries and Practice Management. Ann-Marie has written articles and presents programs on dental implants, TMD, and developmental delays and can be reached at [email protected].