I didn’t know the program was only a test case,” said Virginia McKown of Canonsburg, Pa., an attractive, retired hygiene instructor who looks no older than her former students. “I didn’t even think of the history we were making, I just thought of it as a challenge. I sat up many a night poring over the curriculum. For every hour of class I taught these girls, I spent three or four in the library, working to stay ahead of them.” She looked around the table, beaming. “To see these little innocent girls develop into professional young ladies was a real joy.”
Returning her smile with fondness and respect were several of her students from those long-ago classrooms. The occasion was a reunion lunch in Kirwin Heights, a suburb of Pittsburgh, that’s within striking distance of most of the members of the historic University of Pittsburgh dental hygiene class of 1964. Five students and one instructor had gathered, as they do regularly, to reminisce and catch up with each other’s lives.
Back in 1962, the directors of the dental program at the University of Pittsburgh decided to take a step into the future by instituting a pilot program to train dental auxiliaries. With support from the Kellogg Foundation, and later the Ford Foundation, they developed a program that would train young girls to be dental assistants in a one-year course. With a certificate of graduation from that course, the girls could then choose to enter a second year of study to become dental hygienists.
Twenty-four girls started the first program, paying $500 a year for tuition, plus uniforms and books. They graduated as dental assistants on July 19, 1963.
Fourteen went on for the second year, and graduated as hygienists on July 22, 1964. Helen Morgart, DDS, was the program’s first director, and she hired hygienist Virginia McKown as instructor and clinic supervisor.
“I was working for Dr. Charles Miller in Oakland,” McKown recalled, “and I don’t really remember how I got hooked up with Pitt, but Dr. Morgart was looking for a clinical supervisor and a didactic instructor. I ended up teaching four classes and running the clinic full time.”
There probably weren’t many hygienists around in 1962 who were qualified to teach. McKown herself had fallen into a hygiene career almost by accident.
“I only wanted to go to college for two years,” she said. “I was thinking of a secretarial program at Grove City College, but I had a friend who was a school hygienist, and she convinced me to give it a try. At that time there were only 14 hygiene schools in the country. I went to the University of Michigan, because that’s where my friend had gone, and I graduated in 1948.”
When she came to Pitt as clinic supervisor, there wasn’t much of a clinic. “Oh, that little room,” she remembered with a shake of her head. “It was originally a lab for sophomore dental students, and it was only big enough for six chairs. I had to rotate the girls through a few at a time, and the others went out to hospitals and VA centers, doing bedside prophies. In our clinic, they had to recruit most of their own patients, because it was such a new idea. They’d go down to the coffee shop and say, ‘Excuse me, would you like to have your teeth cleaned?’
“Some patients would come in on their own, and we couldn’t afford to turn anyone down. Farmers would come, literally, with manure on their shoes. One man came in and said he’d had syphilis. Bonnie, the girl who was scheduled with him, turned bright red when she heard that. ‘What am I going to tell my Louis?’ she wailed. That’s what she always called her fiancé, ‘my Louis.’” She was later sent for a precautionary penicillin shot.
There were porte polishers, of course, as well as belt-driven handpieces. There was plain pumice for polishing.
“Oh, and I remember teaching different ways to apply fluoride. For stannous, it was four applications in seven days.”
The students learned to use their single-ended instruments on mannequins before they advanced to live patients. Even 40 years ago, McKown took ergonomics into account when training her girls. “I’m left-handed myself, but I learned to scale right-handed. Operatories weren’t flexible back then, the way they are today. I had five girls at Pitt who were left-handed, and I taught them the same way. If I could do it, so could they.”
McKown was a stickler for appearance and good conduct.
“I was really fussy about the girls keeping their nails short, since we didn’t wear gloves. They couldn’t wear rings or earrings at first, but I think later on we let them wear small pearl earrings.”
The students dressed for their first year in long-sleeved white blouses, turquoise pinafores that buttoned up the back, white skirts, white shoes, and starched white nurses’ caps. The students don’t have fond memories of those rayon uniforms. One swore the blouses had rings around the collar before they came out of the bag.
Carol Abelson Connor of Fairfax, Va., says the turquoise pinafores were “the cheesiest polyester ever manufactured. That fabric still exists. It’s used as a ‘privacy’ curtain where I have physical therapy. I’m trying to get my doctor to let me cut off a piece for a future reunion. It’s still turquoise, still see-through, and it will melt if it gets too close to anything hot.”
Before the first year started, the students were sent their uniforms and told to hem them so they’d hang a certain number of inches off the floor. Well, of course, when the students arrived for class and lined up, all the skirts were the correct number of inches off the floor, but the girls themselves were all different sizes. Some were wearing mini-skirts, and some had skirts down around their ankles. They were told to go home and re-hem them to hit just below their knees. The next day, someone noticed that the uniforms were see-through, so the girls were told to wear two cotton slips from then on.
Connor remembers the fate of the hated first-year uniforms: “The last day of our first year, we had a ripping party and they were easily destroyed. Our second-year uniforms were 100 percent cotton, and still difficult to iron, but they were better than the first-year uniforms.”
It was a lucky fluke, the students agreed, that they had even discovered the new pilot program. Several who came from the same Pittsburgh high school learned of it from a classmate’s mother who worked at the university. Others saw an announcement in the newspaper. Only one of the students had ever had her teeth cleaned by a hygienist, and several weren’t sure exactly what a hygienist did.
Martha “Marty” Olson Swartz of Uniontown, Pa., remembers that the program had a tentative feel to it for that first class: “When we started doing hygiene in our second year, we weren’t even sure there would be a next year. If it weren’t for us 14 passing our boards and being so successful, Pitt wouldn’t have a program today.”
“We were so young,” recalls Harris, “and so unknowing. But all of us agree we did a great thing. For just over a thousand dollars, our parents got us an education and saw that we were forging on to a new way of life. We were going to have more options than just being secretaries or teachers or nurses.”
Connor agrees: “The dental hygiene program gave us so much. It gave us technical skills, education, and the very fine understanding of what it is to be a professional. I’ve done many other things in my life, but some part of me has always been a hygienist - a professional. Six of us are still working after 40 years. What does that tell you? That’s how important our careers became to us.”
Diane Hammill Noethling of Pittsburgh, who came directly from work to be at the luncheon, knew her career was important enough to keep for a lifetime: “I’ve always loved hygiene, and I’ve also thought it was so nice to be paid for something I like to do.”
All of the women at the reunion luncheon that day have had long and varied careers. Here are highlights of each:
Carol Abelson Connor was a civilian hygienist at a military post in central Pennsylvania on her first job.
“It was a good way to start, with a very high level of professionalism and fine quality of work. That job took me to a Washington, D.C., Air Force base, where we had two hygienists, two periodontists, and maybe 45 staff altogether. We worked hard, and at the end of the day, we’d accomplished quite a bit.
“Washington became home for me, and I went into private practice after that. I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was a very special practice. William Rogers, who was President Nixon’s first secretary of state, was one of my patients, and so was Maurice Stans, the secretary of commerce.”
Connor left hygiene after eight years to start a family, retiring two months before her son was born.
Elayne Choder Harris still works 40 hours a week as a hygienist, seeing about 50 patients each week.
“Bonnie Brickner worked with me the first year after school. We were in Jenkins Arcade (a long-vanished Pittsburgh landmark) with two brothers who were dentists, Joseph and Theodore Bowser. We made $25 a day. I quit when my daughter was born, then later I worked for Don Hirsch for a few years. We moved to Cleveland, and I didn’t work in Ohio, but after we came back to Pittsburgh I went to work for John Zeiler. I’ve been at the same office 33 years. Dr. Zeiler retired at age 56, and our dentist now is Dr. Jeffrey Wentz.
“Honestly,” she says, “It’s been a most rewarding career. Without this type of profession, we wouldn’t have been able to afford college for our kids. I’m the sole wage earner right now because of my husband’s health, and I’ve never been out of work unless I chose to be. Am I fulfilled? Yes, I am. I enjoy the camaraderie of my co-workers, and my patients are wonderful.”
Margaret “Carroll” Kowalski Jones of Avon, N.Y., is the only hygienist of the group who is not sure she chose the right career.
“Following graduation I was employed by the University of Pittsburgh, first at the dental clinic and later with a special project in New Castle, Pa. After my husband, daughter, and I relocated to upstate New York, I was employed most of my dental career with Dr. Phillip D’Angelo of Caledonia, N.Y. After about 20 years, burnout began to creep in. I was standing over a patient one day, and thought, ‘Oh, my God, what are you doing here?’ So I went back to school and got a bachelor’s degree from Empire State College. I hung my diploma on the bathroom wall. Everyone eventually goes in there and sees it. Now I work at the Livingston County Office for the Aging as assistant director of the Foster Grandparent Program.
“I feel that remaining in the dental hygiene profession for so many years afforded me the flexibility to work part time and still have time with my children during their growing-up years. I no longer have a hygiene license. If I had it to do over again, I’m not sure I’d become a hygienist, especially with all these new diseases. I’m just not sure I’d choose it again. I’m happier doing something clean.”
Instructor Virginia McKown had an eventful 51-year career in hygiene and education. After earning her associate’s degree in dental hygiene from Michigan, she spent 15 years going to school at night while she worked and raised a family.
“I had three boys and a cooperative husband who worked for the YMCA. He’d take the boys to programs at the Y on Saturdays, while I studied. I never looked at a magazine or read a novel in those years; I just studied. I got a bachelor’s degree in sociology, then a teacher’s certificate.”
She worked at a children’s hospital, as a school hygienist, for a health department, and in general dentistry before she helped start the hygiene program at Pitt.
“I stayed there until 1969, then went to the Mt. Lebanon school district for 15 years. I went back to Pitt for three years, then worked part time in a pediatric practice. When Pennsylvania started requiring continuing education, I retired. I hated to give up my license, but I decided that 51 years was enough.”
In contrast to the other hygienists, Diane Hammill Noethling has been at the same periodontal office for 41 years, all of her career. “I started with Dr. Herbert Meyers in Pittsburgh, and now I work with his son, Dr. James Meyers. I’ve had other part-time jobs over the years - for 15 years, I worked one day a week for Dr. Rodney Wilson, but I started to cut back last year when I became a grandmother. My daughter wants me to retire and be her babysitter, but I don’t want to do that. It would be a big adjustment.”
Marty Olson Swartz of Uniontown, Pa., has, like many hygienists, gone beyond her original associate’s degree.
“I moved to Uniontown after college and worked as a school hygienist for five years. I taught dental assisting at a vo-tech school, then took some time off for family. When I returned to work, I was a hygienist for a Head Start program for 10 years.”
When she decided to go back to school in the evenings, she had a job, a husband, and three children ranging from 6 to 10 years old. “Why? I have no idea. I was young, and I knew I could manage all those things. Eventually, I got a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene from California University of Pennsylvania, and a certificate in early childhood education. The university was a grantee for Head Start, and we went to school tuition-free, although I did pay for some summer courses to complete my teaching certificate.”
She worked for a pediatric dentist for a while, then took a new position with Head Start. “I work for Intermediate Unit 1, which covers three counties, managing Individual Education Plans for 3- to 5-year-old autistic children.”
All the women are profoundly grateful to have been part of the first hygiene graduating class at the University of Pittsburgh. They knew they were breaking new ground, and they took full advantage of every opportunity. They forged bonds, back in 1963-’64, that have lasted more than 40 years. Those who live still live close to Pittsburgh, and even some of those from further away, get together several times a year to have lunch, catch up on each other’s lives, and reminisce about the old days, when they hated their uniforms, studied hard, and made lifelong friends.
The Class of ‘64 ... Bonnie Tompel Brickner (deceased) •Susan Pfeil Bunson, Pittsburgh, Pa. • Judith Feldman Chipin, Ambler Pa. • Carol Abelson Connor, Fairfax, Va. • Madeline D’Andrea Dudas, Monessen, Pa. • Elayne Choder Harris, Pittsburgh, Pa. • Lois Rubin Holbrook, Walsenburg, Colo. • Carroll Kowalski Jones, Avon, N.Y. • Betty Bergad Lerer, Narbeth, Pa. • Mary Ann Mancini McKnight, Pittsburgh, Pa. • Diane Hammill Notheling, Pittsburgh, Pa. • Marty Olson Swartz, Uniontown, Pa. • Lois Rothenstein Wax, Encino, Ca. • Rita Connelly Whatole, Greensburg, Pa.
Poem written for the 40th reunion in 2004
We are the Class of ‘64
Never was there one before.
Thru the years we’ve
Probed and scaled, our patients
Have our talents hailed.
We’ve worked and laughed,
And shed some tears,
We little band of pioneers.
- Elayne Choder Harris
Excerpt from 75 Years of Dentistry, University of Pittsburgh, A History of the School of Dental Medicine
By Isaac Sissman, DDS
published by the School of Dental Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, 1971; reprinted with permission)
PP 97-98, Assistant-hygienist program
The oral hygienists’ course at Pitt was long in coming, but it was distinctive when it came. The Kellogg Foundation provided the money for an unprecedented experiment, starting in 1962, in which the curriculum was designed to combine the training of assistants and hygienists in related courses. The first year (of three semesters) was devoted to training students to be dental assistants. Upon the completion of one year, those who wished to continue, and who qualified scholastically, could enroll for a second year of training (also of three trimesters) as an oral hygienist. Applicants for the oral hygiene course had to hold a certificate from the dental assisting course. The complete course thus graduated competent dental hygienists who could also function as trained dental assistants.
The first class graduated 23 assistants in 1963; 14 of these went into the second year to become hygienists. The program attracted students from many states, and first-year classes averaged an enrollment of 25, of whom about 80 percent went on to a second year of oral hygiene. Assistant professor Helen S. Morgart, DDS, was the first coordinator of the combined course, and Mrs. Virginia McKown, RDH, was clinical supervisor. Dr. Morgart retired in 1969 and was succeeded by Dr. Ruth Friedman. The oral hygiene clinic was the first to move into Salk Hall in 1967.
The affiliation of the Pitt Dental School with five hospitals of the University Health Center provided unusual clinical training for oral hygiene students. In Children’s Hospital, students worked with diabetic, cardiac, mentally retarded, and other types of handicapped children. At Presbyterian University Hospital, the students performed preoperative oral prophylaxes for patients with fractured jaws and for those who would be wearing head and chest casts. At the outpatient clinic of Montefiore Hospital, they treated handicapped patients of all ages. In the city’s two veterans’ hospitals, the students treated patients who had been hospitalized for a long time, and those who had emotional and neurological disorders.
The combined program attracted attention from many other dental schools and brought to Pittsburgh contingents of dental visitors from England, Japan, Finland, and France to see the program’s operations.