Articles submitted to dental history are sponsored by the MDS History and Library Information Services Committee.
On November 17, 1999, 150 people filled the Schulze Auditorium at the Forsyth Institute to celebrate the sixth annual Dr. J. Murray Gavel Clinical Research Lecture. The featured essayist, Dr. Harold Slavkin, director of the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, lectured on “Clinical Research in the New Millennium.” He discussed the union of science and technology developed during Gavel’s century and its application to the future. After reaching 99 years of age, gavel died in 1999. His tumultuous generation witnessed and harnessed the tremendous changes in science that made our prevention-oriented profession possible.
Armed with a high school diploma, Gavel entered Tufts College Dental School on Huntington Avenue in the class of 1923. Since the third-year clinic could accommodate only about half of his 210 colleagues, many would not succeed beyond the first two years. His all-white male classmates were drawn from the northeast region of the United States. Dormitory space was not available; few students had automobiles and most of the patients came by trolley car to the overcrowded clinic.
Dental care consisted of emergency treatment for toothaches and pyorrhea. Students were taught the latest techniques in exodontias, denture construction, and amalgam restorations. The reparative care was rendered at stand-up units with overhead lights and pulley-driven handpieces, which revolved at a maximum speed of 3,500 rpm. There were no dental assistants, few hygienists, two specialties, and an abundance of laboratory work for partial and full dentures.
Dr. Gavel brought a positive attitude to his work and extended this to his patients and his future practice. He transformed otherwise stressful situations into beneficial learning and growing experiences. As a professional, he played an active role in the Tufts Dental Alumni Association, the Massachusetts Dental Society, and the American Dental Association. By forging a life built on self-betterment, his professional accomplishments took on a higher meaning.
The Early Years
Early in his career, Dean Rice of the Dental School included Dr. Gavel in a research project with the Harvard Graduate School of Education. From 1922 to 1934, he advised on dental matters at their Psycho-Educational Clinic. Teaching educators became a cornerstone of his teaching experiences and he realized the need for a full-time clinical teaching staff at his alma mater. From 1939 to 1941, he assisted in a research project at the Harvard School of Public Health. Harold Coe Stuart, a pediatric researcher, created a landmark Longitudinal Growth Study of healthy children. Dr. Gavel was one of a number of allied professionals who assessed all aspects of a child’s environment that might affect his or her growth and development. This unique collaborative experience presented. Gavel with a glimpse of a multi-disciplinary effort that included dental medicine. The total well-being of the future adult included dentistry as an integral component of total health.
At his office of 198 Marlborough Street in the Back Bay, Dr. Gavel cared for some of Boston’s best-known educators and businessmen. Some of his patients included Leonard Carmichael (President of Tufts College and later Secretary of the Smithsonian), Basil Bibby (Dean of the Dental School and later Director of the Eastman Dental Center), Samuel Proger (Professor of Medicine for whom the Proger Health Services Building was named), and Earl Tupper (inventor of Tupperware and Trustee of the Medical School). They all had the confidence in Dr. Gravel’s integrity and capability.
From 1945 to 1970, Gravel’s presence of felt during many decision-making moments at Tufts. As a staff member, he was present during the Dental and Medical School’s move to 136 Harrison Avenue, successfully orchestrated by Dr. Carmichael and Dr. Proger. Dr. Gavel was a member of the steering committee for the creation of the Dental Health Sciences Building dedicated in 1972. For the first time in its century-long history, the Dental School had enough space to grow in a building designed specifically for dental medicine.
As a faculty member, Dr. Gavel rose from Assistant Clinical Professor to full Clinical Professor in the Department of Operative Dentistry. He served as Dean of the school during the academic years 1962 and 1963 until the trustees chose Dr. Louis Calisti to succeed him. During 1967, Dr. Gavel became Trustee of the Forsyth Dental Center. Dr. Gavel watched and advised as the Center grew under Dr. John Hein’s able leadership. With his wisdom and foresight, Dr. Gavel’s advice was sought for 30 years as the Center evolved into the Forsyth Institute.
Involvement in Organized Dentistry
Dr. Gavel participated in a number of important committees. He chaired the Metropolitan District of the Massachusetts Dental Society in 1948 and became President of the Society in 1949. During 1957, he was elected second Vice-President of the American Dental Association and represented the ADA at the Brussels meeting of the Federation Dentaire Internatonale. He appreciated being an ambassador for the profession and made many lifelong friendships here and abroad.
Dr. Gavel’s leadership capabilities were appreciated in a number of prestigious organizations. In 1953, he presided over the American Academy of Dental Science. As a regent of the First District of the International College of Dentistry (USA Section) from 1958 to 1964, Gavel represented them on an extended tour of the Far East. He inaugurated the Massachusetts Chapter of the Academy of General Dentistry in 1971, and he presided over the ICD College at large in 1975 and the Pierre Fauchard Academy in 1976.
With the invention of the high-speed, water-cooled air turbine and the DEN-TAL-EZ chair, he became a working member of the Milwaukee Dental Research Group. At an earlier workshop at the University of Michigan, Dr. Gavel met L.D. Pankey, a practice management pioneer. As an outgrowth of the workshops, the Research Group pioneered the practice changes that eventually led to modern sit-down dentistry with dental assistants. In 1965, the Research Group awarded Dr. Gavel its Distinguished Professional Service Award.
Recognized with Honor
Tufts presented Dr. Gavel with a Distinguished Service Award in 1950 and an honorary Doctorate of Laws (LHD) in 1964. Besides being named the outstanding dentist by the Northeastern Dental Society in 1963, he earned the Etherington Award at the Yankee Dental Congress in 1977 and the Pierre Fauchard Plaque in 1976. His friends and colleagues established the Dr. J. Murray Gavel Center for Restorative Dental Research at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in 1992.
On June 11, 1982, Dr. Gavel Delivered the convocation address to the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine graduating class, in which he summed up his journey as a professional for more than 60 years. The 154 students he addressed differed remarkably from those in his class of 1923. Of the graduates, 140 had earned bachelor’s degrees, 12 had master’s degrees, and two held doctorates. There were 10 international students who had earned foreign dental degrees and completed their American requisites for practice. More women were entering the profession and students no longer came only from the northeast region of the United States. Many had international backgrounds and brought cross-cultural experiences with them.
Dr. Gavel witnessed the growth of Forsyth. His generation funded the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Dental Research, and the newer National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. He observed as multidisciplinary dental research mastered a number of disease processes affection the teeth and the periodontium. Now researchers turned their efforts to craniofacial biology. This new perspective, introduced in Dr Slavkin’s lecture, includes genetic causes, birth defects, oral systemic infections, the genome, tissue engineering, and the human face in the context of human well-being. Taste, smell, and the muscles of facial expression are included under the rubric of craniofacial biology.
Dr. Gavel and his generation brought us strength of character and volunteerism. He always strove for excellence and loved learning new technologies in his chosen profession. Dr. Gavel displayed integrity, would not settle for mediocrity, and honored his Alma matter by willing his estate to Tufts University. Perhaps Shakespeare said it best in Richard II, “the purest treasure moral times offer is spotless reputation.” This remains J. Murray Gavel’s true, immutable, and transgenerational legacy.