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Address Delivered at Dental Convocation by Philip A. Shaffer, 1941

Philip A. Shaffer

Philip A. Shaffer (1881-1960) served on the faculty of the Washington University School of Medicine for over forty years.  He was appointed professor and head of the department of Biological Chemistry in 1910, a position he retained until 1946.  He twice served as dean of the School, from 1915 to 1919, and from 1937 to 1946.  From 1946 to 1952 Shaffer was Distinguished Service Professor of Biochemistry, becoming emeritus professor in 1951 when he retired from the Medical School Faculty.  This address was delivered at the graduation ceremonies for the School of Dentistry on April 9, 1941.

Philip A. Shaffer

by Philip A. Shaffer

After hearing the addresses this afternoon by distinguished leaders in dental education and the scholarly analysis by the foremost medical historian, it would seem presumptuous for a medical dean to try to add to this discussion.  I can claim no such qualification as theirs.  Indeed, my acquaintance with dentistry is mainly limited to that claimed by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his famous address at one of the early Commencement exercises of the Harvard Dental School; to information “gained while sitting in one of those magic chairs which fit alike the giant and the dwarf.”

There is still another reason why I am uneasy about accepting the honor of a place on this program.  There appears to be a suspicion abroad that medical schools and especially medical deans may have designs on dental schools and may be secretly scheming to steal their show.  Under these circumstances it is a special honor – and I hope a mark of confidence – not only to be accorded a place in this symposium, but to be allowed the last word!

By way of justifying your confidence, may I assure you, Dr. Lischer, and our distinguished guests that we in the Medical School have no predatory instincts or designs – at any rate not for dentistry.  We share your pride in the accomplishments of dentistry and in the developments of this Dental School during its first seventy-five years.

But, whatever the legal status and responsibilities of dentistry as a profession, there ought to be – and is – a growing realization that the basic problems of dentistry and medicine are so close, so nearly the same, that the advance of both professions and the public good call for the closest possible coordination of facilities and personnel in education and in research, and for closest cooperation in rendering the services for which these professions exist.

Probably as a consequence of its independent professional status and of the pioneering inventiveness of our people, American dentistry has achieved a proficiency that has set standards for the world.  It has to its credit many fundamental contributions.  It is nevertheless true as stated by the President of the Rockefeller Foundation, that the world leadership of American dentistry is “based more upon ingenuity of a mechanical sort than upon the amount or character of research done on the anatomy, physiology and pathology of the oral cavity. . . .  Until our dental schools are brought more closely into line with our medical schools, much of the mechanical brilliance of American dentists will remain that and nothing more, and the essential curative and preventive measures will go unstudied.”

What has dentistry to gain from a closer association with medical and other schools within a University?  A survey of progress in any department of medicine demonstrates abundantly, it seems to me, that the main springs from which progress flows are located more frequently not in the subject which makes the use of the discovery, but in other fields of knowledge upon which the applied subject rests.  Anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, biochemistry, bacteriology, pathology, represent the body of knowledge and the techniques from which modern medical advance has come.  These medical sciences in turn so depend upon biology and physics and chemistry that it is now not easy to distinguish which is more fundamental to the other.  If there is one lesson to be learned from the growth of modern sciences, it is their interdependence, the extent to which fields overlap and lines of demarcation have disappeared, and that the directions in which paths for new progress in any subject will be discovered are unpredictable.

This must be the primary reason why medicine and dentistry like the other professions have attained their present development within universities; for universities are the places where systematic knowledge is accumulated and made available to those discerning enough to use it.  It is the pooling of knowledge and the resulting cross fertilization that breeds progress.

This idea defines the place that dentistry should occupy in a university.  Like all of medicine, dentistry is built upon anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, bacteriology and pathology.  Only by the cultivation of these sciences as university subjects serving dentistry as well as medicine – not by their separation – will full benefit result.  A university is not only the place to recruit students – and a badge of respectability for securing financial support; it is also the best breeding ground for new ideas and new methods.  For their best development both medicine and dentistry might well put rather less emphasis and concern upon their independence in authoritative and isolated ivory towers located on the academic campus, and give more attention to building bridges into the realms of other fields to be found on the university campus.

The particular techniques of dentistry like the techniques of ophthalmology, for example, are its own concern and responsibilities.  Teachers and practitioners in these professions may be relied upon to maintain and improve their special techniques and skills.  But the responsibilities of dentistry and of medicine have expanded far beyond mere technical training – essential as that is.  As said recently by Dean Rappleye of Columbia, “the knowledge and skills now required for an adequate program of medical care are too extensive for any individual to master.  It is apparent that the medical profession needs a number of different types of individuals and a wide range of special talents if it is fully to meet the diversified health needs of a community.”

The task of medicine is to continue and improve the cultivation of the medical sciences as the best way to find new and better ways both of curing disease and of preventing it; and also to explore without prejudice ways and means by which that service can be rendered more uniformly than it now is to all our people.  No more important problem confronts our civilization; for without health and vigor there cannot be that measure of individual satisfaction and national efficiency upon which survival will depend.  The task of dentistry is to seek the best ways to join in this program for health.  To do so it must use and contribute to the same sciences upon which medicine is based.  An immediate task of dental education would seem to be to recruit and train dental practitioners who are both qualified and willing to correct and prevent the defects now so widespread as seriously to interfere with enrollment of military forces.  The examinations for Selective Service are evidence of the widespread need for dental and medical care.

Many will agree with Rappleye that in many communities “the coordination of existing efforts, the elimination of unnecessary competition and duplication, and the mobilization of public and financial support would provide an adequate program of medical and health services.  Failure of the medical profession in the immediate past to visualize these broad community needs and to provide leadership in solving them explains why so many programs have been planned and initiated by governmental and non-medical organizations.”

This view point is as applicable to dentistry as to the whole of medicine, and must be taken account of in educational programs.  There is room for much more coordination in the curricula of both medical and dental schools.  There is need for a saving of time in pre-professional and professional training.  The plan proposed by Dr. Sigerist for a reorganization of the medical curricula deserves very serious study.

Recognition of their interdependence, more thought about means for cooperation rather than concern about isolated authority, should be the attitude of medicine and dentistry alike in a university.  In this University that is the spirit, I believe, with which both the medical and dental faculties look toward the future.  When the Missouri Dental College was established in 1866, it was afforded the facilities of the St. Louis Medical College.  Both colleges entered Washington University in 1892.  Means should be found to continue and extend with increasing efficiency that close relationship established seventy-five years ago.

In this spirit of common responsibility and mutual helpfulness, I am proud to extend to the Dental School the congratulations of the Medical Faculty on this Diamond Jubilee and our assurance of continued and increasing cooperation.


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