Harvard Public Health Review Winter 2007
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Best of the Best, 2007 Alumni Award of Merit Winners

Myron Allukian Jr., MPH67
Myron Allukian, Jr.,
MPH '67

Championing the rights of Alaskan Natives in remote rural areas to get care from specially trained dental therapists, despite opposition from organized dentistry

Restored dental Medicaid funding in Massachusetts several times; initiated bills resulting in the 2002 Legislative Commission Report on the Crisis in Oral Health and dentistry’s inclusion in the State Child Health Insurance Program

Election to the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, 1991; Sedgwick Memorial Medal, the American Association of Public Health’s highest honor, 2001 (first and only dentist-recipient)

Past president, Harvard School of Public Health Alumni Council; board member, Harvard Alumni Association; associate clinical professor, Harvard School of Dental Medicine

Dentist Puts Teeth into Public Health

As a kid, Myron Allukian MPH ’67 hated trips to the dentist. What could be more excruciating?

“I thought, ‘There has to be a better way,’ ” he says, looking back on his career choice. Today Allukian is a legend in his field. An early champion of water fluoridation, he has helped bring better oral health to millions of people in the United States and abroad, from soda-loving suburban children to the elderly, the homeless, the urban poor, and the HIV-infected.

A Hero to Have-Nots
In 1965, one year out of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dentistry, Allukian began practicing public health on the battlefields of Vietnam. Upon joining the 3rd Marine Division, he was assigned to a field hospital outside Danang. When he was not helping save soldiers’ lives, he visited orphanages full of children with rotting teeth and abscessed gums. Horrified, he enlisted his colleagues to treat many more in villages, refugee camps, and schools.

Buddhist orphans serenaded him with a “thank you” song, touching him deeply. “I knew after treating those kids that this was the kind of dentistry I wanted to do, the kind that helps the underserved and unserved,” he says.

After returning to the United States, Allukian enrolled in a joint postdoctoral program at Harvard’s schools of Public Health and Dental Medicine, where he concentrated in health services and nutrition. In 1968, while still a student, he testified before the Massachusetts legislature, reporting that Bay State teenagers had six times more tooth decay than did Vietnamese teens. His report helped change Massachusetts state law, giving local boards of health the authority to order fluoridation.

“That’s when I learned the power of data,” he says.

Leadership Milestones
In 1970, Allukian became director of the Bureau of Community Dental Programs at the Boston Department of Health and Hospitals. A network of 17 clinics he jumpstarted now logs more than 100,000 patient visits a year. In the 1980s, Allukian’s national leadership on behalf of AIDS patients stimulated the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue guidelines for dental infection control, as well as create one of the country’s first dental programs for the homeless.

In 1990, he was elected president of the then-118-year-old American Public Health Association, only the second dentist to reach that position. By then he had chaired the U.S. Surgeon General’s Work Group on Fluoridation and Dental Health, paving the way for making oral health a priority for the 1990, Healthy People 2000, and Healthy People 2010 health objectives for the United States.

Thanks largely to Allukian’s efforts, more than 2.5 million people in Greater Boston now drink fluoridated water, which can cut the incidence of oral disease by half.

“When I started out, 8 percent of Massachusetts towns had it; now it’s 63 percent,” he reports. About 170 million Americans benefit from fluoridation today.
For 40 years and counting, Allukian has waged that battle while training students at nine dental and graduate schools. Access to dental care remains a hot issue. “Nursing homes and the eldery have enormous needs,” he says, and for people on Medicaid or with AIDS, dental medicine is an oft-requested service.

Despite his uphill climb, Allukian relishes the progress he has seen in dental public health. “I’m a lucky man to be doing what I do,” he says.

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Karin Kiewra is editor of the Review and Associate Director of Development Communications at HSPH.

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