Woman was a pioneer in the field of dental hygiene


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Although the name of Wilma Elizabeth Motley might not resonate with most people, her life's work certainly will.

Motley, who died in Baltimore last month at the age of 92, was recognized worldwide as an authority in the field of dental hygiene and its history.

Between 1972 and 1989, Motley published three books on the philosophy, ethics, jurisprudence and history of dental hygiene.

Motley's efforts in the 1970s resulted in the recognition and accreditation of dental hygiene programs by the American Dental Association.

"She was a pioneer and fought to get hygienists recognized by the American Dental Association and that earned her honorary membership in the American Dental Association. She is the only hygienist to receive such an honor," said her longtime friend Dr. H. Berton McCauley, a retired dentist and former director of the Baltimore Health Department's dental care program, with whom she lived the last six years of her life.

Motley was a 1933 graduate of the dental hygiene program at the University of Southern California's School of Dentistry, and after her 1934 marriage to William G. Motley, a dentist, she worked for 30 years in his Sherman Oaks, Calif., practice. He died in 1996.

Motley was interested in the origins of her profession and spent years researching the subject. Her research resulted in the publication of Ethics, Jurisprudence and History for the Dental Hygienist and a History of the American Dental Hygienist's Association.

"The overwhelming need for dental care which we see every day might cause us to believe that concern for the health and care of the mouth and teeth is a relatively new concept in our culture," she wrote.

"On the contrary, these concerns, in greater or lesser degree, have been present since man evolved. Chimpanzees have been observed using a straw as a toothpick, presumably to alleviate an uncomfortable feeling of food impacted between the teeth, and it is reasonable to imagine that Neanderthal man did the same thing with a thorn, quill or stick of some kind," she wrote in Ethics, Jurisprudence and History for the Dental Hygienist, which is still a standard textbook in dental schools.

Her research showed that by 10,000 B.C., humans in Europe who suffered from dental problems remedied the situation simply by knocking out their teeth; by 5,000 B.C., man had embarked on the art of surgery on the skull.

Way before the invention of mouthwash and toothpaste, early mankind, she reported, probably chewed fragrant slivers of wood as a breath sweetener, and once softened, the wood was then used like a brush to clean teeth.

The ancient Persians were probably the first people to fashion crude toothbrushes from arak wood that contained sodium bicarbonate and plant fibers that had soaked in water, while Egyptians indulged not only in brushing teeth but also in replacing missing teeth and devising ways to "ornament teeth still in the mouth," she wrote.

The role of the dental hygienist coincides with the birth of the oral hygiene movement in dentistry in 1843, and by 1900, with dentists desiring to relinquish routine prophylactic care in order to allow them to complete more difficult and restorative procedures, the modern hygienist emerges.

And it was Alfred Civilion Fones, a Bridgeport, Conn., dentist who is considered the father of dental hygiene, who proved that it was possible to train people to provide oral health education and prophylactic care.

Fones trained his assistant, Irene Newman, in his office, and she became the first dental "hygienist to practice this specialty," Motley wrote. He later established the Fones School of Dental Hygiene in Bridgeport.

In 1923, 46 dental hygienists meeting in Cleveland, founded the American Dental Hygienists' Association, which has today has grown to 120,000 registered dental hygienists.

During her career, Motley served as president of the American Association for Dental Editors and was a former president of the American Academy of the History of Dentistry. In 2000, Motley was inducted into the hall of fame at USC's School of Dentistry, where she had been a faculty member for 15 years.

"She was busy all the time and when she moved to Baltimore, she became very active with the National Museum of Dentistry at the University of Maryland," McCauley said. "And the museum has become the repository of all of her papers and research materials."


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