Mary Martha Stevens, RDH, PhD
During an interview I had with Ruth Sloan Bugbee, RDH, in 1981, she stated, "I don`t approve of what the dental hygienists are getting into today in private practice. I think they`re losing the basic reason for the creation of the dental hygiene profession. The reason for the creation of the profession was to educate, starting with the child. If you`re standing at a dental chair doing prophys all day, and educating each person - you sound like a broken record at the end of the day."
Ruth, a prominent dental hygiene educator went on to say with a fierce determination, "And the next day it`s the same thing. So, after doing this day after day, this could get very frustrating. No wonder hygienists are burned out at the end of the day. But, when you work in dental health education, you are doing the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people. There`s always something new. You can be innovative. You work with lots of people. It`s very rewarding."
Saying that Ruth Bugbee had fierce determination is an understatement. Unfortunately, that kind of leadership, which was part of an unwavering dedication to the ideals of the dental hygiene profession, is no longer with us. Ruth Bugbee, RDH, a pioneer in school dental health education, died recently at the age of 96. I was fortunate to have worked with her, and to have been her friend.
Ruth was special. She had this positive spirit that transcended problems, obstacles and anything else that got in her way. After graduating from the first class of dental hygienists at the University of Pennsylvania in 1922, Ruth completed a year`s internship in the public schools. At that time, the internship was a requirement for dental hygiene licensure in Pennsylvania.
"I was assigned to three schools in different districts and I rotated weekly to each school," said Ruth. "I would go to the classroom and make a little speech about nutrition, and then take the children to a portable office and give them a prophy, talk to them and send a note home to their parents. I had a terrific year!"
A terrific year that eventually ended in 25 years of dedication to school dental health education in Tucson, Ariz. It was there that Ruth started a public school-based program in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) in 1942. "By the time I started my program," said Ruth, "I had married my high school sweetheart who had become a medical doctor, had two children, and moved to Arizona for my husband`s health." Ruth was the second dental hygienist to be licensed in the state of Arizona.
Ruth`s daughter, Susan Borman, who is also a dental hygienist and wife of Col. Frank Borman, the astronaut, proudly commented, "Mother was the one who was responsible for getting dental hygiene recognized in Arizona. Loyalty and enthusiasm, these were her hallmarks. I think my mother could have written The Power of Positive Thinking. She was a very strong role model as a mother and as a teacher. She left a profound mark on most people she touched, including her two children," said Borman.
After Col. Frank Borman returned from piloting Gemini VII in 1965, Ruth asked him for his toothbrush. She wanted to show it to the school children. It seemed, however, that everyone wanted to touch it. So Ruth framed it. This famous toothbrush is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
One of Ruth`s most creative and scholarly contributions to the field of dental health education was her development of the "swish and swallow" slogan. This popular concept was endorsed by the American Dental Association and used extensively in the public schools throughout the United States and England in the 1960s and 1970s. Ruth conceptualized this self-care activity while trying to get rid of snack-vending mac-hines in the public schools. She eventually came across an article in a dental journal, by Dr. Fosdick at Northwestern University, that advocated rinsing the mouth immediately after eating for better oral hygiene. After much thought, Ruth decided that, "the word rinsing would never do - why not swish and swallow!" The teachers at all levels of the Tucson school district embraced the message and guided their students through the practice. With this success behind her, Ruth traveled to the International Dental Conference in Cologne, Germany, in 1962, to "sell the idea to anyone who would listen," said Ruth.
Today, interestingly enough, "swish and swallow" is making a come-back in the public schools according to Pat Poore, RDH, MEd, who has been in charge of the TUSD dental health education program since Ruth retired. "I`ve begun using the concept again, and the school teachers are encouraging their students to comply," said Poore recently. A great self-care concept only grows stronger over time.
Ruth presented and published scientific papers internationally, and was president of the Arizona State Dental Hygiene Association in 1957, and again in 1963. Ruth was so greatly admired and appreciated by the dentists in the Tucson area that they made her an honorary member of the Southern Arizona Dental Society - the first dental hygienist in the state to receive this honor.
Fifty-six years later, Ruth`s school dental health education program is still going strong. Even the unique "Grayline" program, an emergency dental treatment program for "non-welfare" indigent children, continues to help children who would otherwise not receive dental treatment. Ruth began this program in 1964 with the assistance of 69 dentists who agreed to accept one child per month for free dental care in their private offices.
During the TUSD1996-97 school year, 100 Tucson dentists and dental hygienists participated in the program, and 329 students received treatment.
"What always im-pressed me about Ruth," said Poore, "was her continued interest in our program, even to the end of her life. In fact, about eight months before she died, she had someone write to me asking for the program`s annual report. I just thought that was amazing."
Ruth came out of retirement in 1969 to start another dental health education program in the Sunnyside School District, just south of Tucson. She recruited me as program director several months later.
It was also during that time that Ruth and Pat Poore co-authored a manual, Teeth for Life, which was written to help school teachers with daily lesson plans on dental health education. Since dental health was not a formal subject in most school curricula, this manual was created to assist teachers who taught grades 1-6. The manual was sponsored by The International Dental Research Foundation, Inc. and published by Charles B. Slack, Inc. I was fortunate to have illustrated the manual which was used in Arizona schools and other districts throughout the United States and Japan.
Ruth Bugbee`s spirit will be with us for generations to come. It will grow in the smiles of the parents and children who grew-up in Tucson. It will grow in the lives of Arizona hygienists and others across this nation who aspire to teach dental health education to children of all ages.
And, it will grow in the lives of those who were privileged to have known her. Our lives have been enriched by her presence. Our minds will continue to be challenged by the memories of her great leadership.
Mary Martha Stevens, RDH, PhD
Contributions can be made to the TUSD Dental Health Education Program in remembrance of Ruth S. Bugbee. The program screened 7,600 students last year. Letters should be addressed to Pat Poore, RDH, 1111 East Waverly, Tucson, AZ, 85719, and checks payable to TUSD Dental Program.
Ruth Bugbee, RDH, shows children the well-traveled toothbrush used by Col. Frank Borman during his journey through space abord Gemini VII in 1965. In the background, a poster depicts one of Bugbee`s significant contributions to dental health education: "If you can`t brush after eating ... swish and swallow."
Children in Sunnyside Public Schools display their "smiles" artwork in celebration of National Children`s Dental Health Week during the 1975-76 school year.