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Esther Wilkins, Whose Book Set Standards In Dental Hygiene, Dies

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Esther Wilkins died last week at age 100. You might never have heard of her, but Wilkins was a rock star among at least one group - dental hygienists like Colleen Warrior of Detroit.

COLLEEN WARRIOR: Esther Wilkins was and is the most motivating person to I think every dental hygienist. Almost 35 years later, I still have her clinical textbook. I still have that in my cabinet at work.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In 1959, Wilkins published "Clinical Practice Of The Dental Hygienist," a textbook that would serve as the guide for training dental hygienists for the next five decades. She was still updating it until earlier this year. She explained her work at an award ceremony last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ESTHER WILKINS: My mission is oral health education so more people can understand the need for oral health and how to accomplish it.

SIEGEL: Wilkins graduated from Tufts School of Dental Medicine in 1948 at a time when few women were entering the field. When she applied, the dean suggested she defer for a year to avoid being the only female in her class. She did, but that didn't hold her back. She went on to serve as a professor of dentistry at Tufts for 45 years.

SHAPIRO: Jane Weiner, a dental hygienist in Florida, met Wilkins years ago at a conference. She says hygienists often lined up to get their books signed or photos taken with Wilkins.

JANE WEINER: She was, like, the queen of dental hygiene. She was the goddess.

SHAPIRO: Weiner says that's because Wilkins made the job about more than just teeth cleaning and fluoride treatments.

WEINER: She really was the impetus to prove to us and teach us there's more to it than that and that we are educators. We're caregivers. We're periodontal therapists. And she made a person really put value on the profession rather than considering it just a skill.

SIEGEL: Weiner says she remembers seeing students interact with Wilkins.

WEINER: I've watched their faces, and they left meeting her feeling very differently about themselves than they did when they met her. They had more confidence.

SIEGEL: The 12th edition of Esther Wilkins' textbook on dental hygiene came out this year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.