Women in Dentistry - A glance back and look forward

Featuring women in oral health professions

Submitted by Dr. Shelia Price
Whether in like a lion or out like a lamb, the month of March signals a few annual favorites from “March Madness” for intercollegiate basketball enthusiasts to refreshing seasonal signposts of spring.

March is also Women’s History Month and its theme this year is Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope. On this occasion, the West Virginia University School of Dentistry is celebrating women and their contributions to the healing art and science of Dentistry.

Historically, dentistry’s landscape was predominantly comprised of male dentists and female dental hygienists. A similar demographic is embedded in WVU School of Dentistry early history with its first graduating class in 1961 being all men, and four years later the first dental hygiene class had two graduates, both women.

In aggregate, during the 1960s, women represented 1.4% of WVU dental graduates. The proportion of women graduates remained meager throughout 1970s. In the words of USA Today columnist Rhonda Abrams, “Things don’t go from here to there without passing through some middle territory” and that was the case regarding women’s representation in Dentistry shifting over time from low to medium to much more balanced proportion. Twenty years into school history, a slow but steady rise in number of women graduates occurred. By mid-1980s, about 1 in 4 dental graduates were women. Enrollment of women continued tracking upward to approximately 33% in 1990. Then, in 2002, the school reached a milestone when women dental graduates (51%) exceeded men for the first time in school history. Another striking spike happened in 2015 when women constituted 67% of dental graduates.

Over six decades, approximately one-fourth of WVU dental graduates are women but a better barometer of the future is that women have accounted for nearly 50% of dental graduates in the last five years.

Delving into graduation data also uncovers many interesting facts about WVU Women in Dentistry. Did you know…?

Enrollment “firsts” include twin sisters and one brother in the same dental class. One alumna was first to complete four School of Dentistry programs: BS dental hygiene, MS dental hygiene, DDS, and masters in Endodontics. A mother- daughter duo enrolled in dental school the same year. Another woman graduated #1 in Dental Hygiene and later earned the same distinction upon completing the dental program.

The dental profession has changed, and inclusion of women therein has moved from sparse to significant. Today, women are solidly entrenched in the historically male-dominated profession and vast contributors to the health and hope of our communities. As we celebrate women’s history month, the WVU School of Dentistry proudly salutes its women graduates, particularly Dental Class of 1963 graduate Dr. Nancy Burton Waitkus and Dental Hygiene Class of 1965 graduates Deborah Ann Johnson and Carol Ann McGill who, to date, blazed the Mountaineer pathway to Dentistry for nearly 700 women dentists.

Class of 1963

Dental Hygiene Class of 1965