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