Looking back at 50 years

Last year marked my 50th year in the dental hygiene profession. Looking back, I am amazed at the many doors of opportunity it has opened for me ...

Mar 1st, 2009

by Jeanne Graves, RDH

Last year marked my 50th year in the dental hygiene profession. Looking back, I am amazed at the many doors of opportunity it has opened for me, as well as providing the source for much of my own personal growth.

As a senior in high school in Milwaukee, Wis., I had never heard of the dental hygiene profession. I was unsure of my goals until the dentist who had employed me as a dental assistant recommended I apply for the dental hygiene program at Marquette University. Fortunately I was accepted after completing a prerequisite in organic chemistry.

The two years of training was intense yet very rewarding, for now I had a definite goal. Fifty–one of us were in that class. After graduation, I received the news that the Winnebago County Department of Health wanted to hire me for their pioneer program in 40 county schools.

The program involved dental screening all of the students in that school system. There were home visits to parents, educational presentations at PTA meetings and county fairs, visual aid presentations to the schools, and reports to the health department. I loved all of it and often was amused by the names the children would call me. “Boy oh boy, here comes the dental genius.” “There is the dental hyena.” The rural school children were precious and brought out of me hidden talents that I could only discover through their need to learn about healthy teeth. I created puppet shows, wrote songs, and told stories to promote dental health.

I eventually found ease in speaking in front of groups. These were developments in my personal growth that I found useful in the years ahead. I was immensely satisfied in seeing the improvement of the dental health in the community.

I left after two years to be married and move to Colorado (I met my husband while employed in Winnebago County—an added reward for working there). The years following opened doors to work in more than 48 dental offices on a part–time basis and as a fill–in on a temporary basis. I stayed 25 years in one of those offices.

I obtained many useful tools for my profession and, in turn, was able to share new ideas with offices. It was a give–and–take team effort, and I am most grateful to have the experience of working in a variety of settings. The working conditions were not always the best, and I had to work with some really old and often faulty equipment. There were the dental units on wheels that I had to pull from room to room. They had the belt that propelled the handpiece and often the belt came off the pulley track, and I had to stop and put it back on. It left black marks on my white cap when I got too close to it (I wore the white dress, stockings, shoes, and cap with the lilac ribbon during early years).

Other offices had provided more modern units — at least they were better than mobile units. There was the “pump” chair as I call it. It was like an old barber chair, and my legs got a workout all day long. I finally learned to speak up and ask for a better arrangement. There were better units but usually the dental hygienist got the oldest in those days.

We did not have the disposable prophy angles and saliva ejectors. Cold sterilization was used a lot more along with the autoclave for our instruments. We were not masked, nor did we were protective eyeglasses. We did not wear gloves, and the plastic covering on the units did not exist. X–rays were processed in tanks with metal racks holding the X–rays. The room was very dark with a special light to avoid exposure.

Prophy paste did not come in the delightful flavors we have today. I learned to mix my own special blend with dry, gray pumice, water, and a slight drop of mint flavoring.

I recall applying for work in Colorado as a young bride. The first dentist I spoke with told me that he had a Cavitron machine and he did not need a hygienist. I honestly believed that my profession had been replaced by a machine until I actually found other dentists who were willing to hire me.

I was the third dental hygienist to reside in Pueblo, Colo. One lady was retiring and that left two of us. The other retired shortly after I came. She had put in 50 years and eventually lived to be 102 years old.

My two years in Salt Lake City where my husband completed his master's degree was also a pioneering opportunity in the profession. Only one hygienist resided in the area and dentists were not that informed about our profession. Seven were willing to try it out as I moved from office to office during the month — one day here, a half day there.

I did that for two years before we returned to Colorado.

In the years to follow, I became involved in our national, state, and local dental hygiene societies. I wanted to contribute to the profession that had given me so much. There are so many areas and opportunities for serving but I had to learn to choose wisely since raising our four children required most of my time. As Mrs. Colorado of 1967, I continued to be active in the profession and was able to present puppet shows on our state television stations. “Hoppy the Horse” was well received.

When Colorado passed the law allowing dental hygienists to have their own dental hygiene practice, I did not dream of being one of those involved in it until a young dentist suggested that I rent a space in his office and set up my own practice. I purchased my basic equipment through a lease company and began my independent dental hygiene practice. The dentist, of course, benefited greatly from the many patients I referred to him.

I now have this arrangement with my son, a dentist. We are located in the same building, only a few doors away from each other.

Operating my own dental hygiene clinic has been a really satisfying experience. It provides a bridge for people new to town seeking a dentist, people with fears of dental offices, patients who cannot wait for a cleaning in their regular office, people with financial limitations who otherwise would put off dental care and other reasons. All of these people are then referred to a dentist of their choice for further dental care.

Fifty years later and still loving the profession. I am open to new change. Full retirement is not out of the question. I will continue, however, to be involved in the dental education of our community. The puppet shows in the schools will continue. I have some ideas for inventions that I want to pursue, along with some research in the field of periodontics.

We become old when we quit learning and sharing our knowledge. We age when life loses its excitement, and we become self–absorbed and inactive.

I can truly say that I have lived. Oh yes, I have lived. My faith, my family, musical activities, travel experiences, motivational speaking opportunities, and especially my profession have all blended together to color my life with warm and glowing moments.

My heart is thankful for the dental hygiene profession. It has given me friendships, educational training, job flexibility, financial support, and opportunities to touch the lives of others. Fifty years is considered a golden moment in time, but for me, all the previous years are just as golden and I am most grateful to be able to look back and remember and embrace those days as well.

To other women seeking a career in dental hygiene, go for it, stay focused, give it your best, and expand into new areas of the profession as they come along. Be honest, helpful, receptive to constructive criticism, and be a real team player when you get out in that working world. Twenty years ago, I was inspired to write the thoughts on the preceding page while thinking of something I could share at one of our staff meetings; it's a standard for each of us to try to live up to.


Love Chapter for the Dental Office


  • I speak with great eloquence in dental terminology but if I show no love to our patients and office staff, I am like a toothless mouth and a clacking denture.
  • I understand all knowledge in dentistry and have great talent in assisting with dental problems. But if I am not loving in my duties, I am really nothing.
  • As a member of the dental team, I am kind and understanding, even to the grumpy patients who are never satisfied.
  • I avoid being rude and angry throughout the day, whether a patient is late or equipment breaks down.
  • I believe in our office and its staff and will always defend them. I delight in making my co–workers and the patients happy.
  • Even though the weather may be bad and our appointments should cancel, I know that if I am truly loving despite the obstacles, I am participating in the greatest force there is. I can leave the office knowing that I have truly done my part in helping to make it a great day.

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