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Alma matters

Dr. Bill Wathen

Dr. Bill Wathen, center, associate
professor of general dentistry,
was named the University of
Kentucky College of Dentistry
2011 distinguished alumnus.

Photo courtesy Dr. Bill Wathen

After receiving distinguished alumnus award from University of Kentucky College of Dentistry, Wathen reflects on his dental school years

Dr. Bill Wathen, whose roots in dentistry began far from the sprawling metroplex, got his first exposure to the dental profession nearly 900 miles away at the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry. He was a member of the school’s second entering class. Back then, the college was in its formative years, but its progressive approach to learning, now known as a diagonal curriculum, made quite an impact on Wathen.

The concept, which takes the two-year blocks of basic sciences and clinical experience found in a traditional dental curriculum and tips them diagonally, has resonated with him to this day as an excellent way to introduce clinical sciences early in the dental education experience. It left Wathen with an enduring love of and excitement for dentistry. It may be one reason that the associate professor of general dentistry at Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry was recognized as his alma mater’s 2011 distinguished alumnus last fall.

“The four years at Kentucky gave us our professional lives. It made us who we are.”
—Dr. Bill Wathen

It’s safe to say Wathen has fond memories from his years at the University of Kentucky’s dental school. If you have a few minutes in the day, he’d be happy to sit down and share a few stories. He might tell about his first semester, when he and his classmates went to the clinic to learn dental terminology and anatomy by looking into each other’s mouths while learning how to put on bibs, use mirrors and explorers, and relate it all to the dental chart. It was preparation for the next months, when they learned about dental plaque, disease control, patient education and motivation, and moved on to rubber-cup prophylaxes on one another.

“The idea was implanted from the first days of dental school that you have to prevent the disease before you can devise a sensible definitive treatment plan,” Wathen says. “We knew what plaque looked like under a microscope, we knew how to get it off and we knew how to help patients find it with a disclosing tablet.”

All the while Wathen and his classmates studied introductory periodontics and occlusion along with the basic sciences, always with emphasis on how the topics related to what they were doing in the clinic.

When the second semester rolled around, they started seeing each other as patients for simple scaling, prophylaxes and small fillings. By March, Wathen and his classmates had progressed to larger single-surface restorations.

“We were so enamored of and excited by dentistry that we became dental nerds by default,” Wathen says. “The four years at Kentucky gave us our professional lives. It made us who we are.”

Emphasis on innovation

A lot has happened since Wathen graduated more than 40 years ago in 1967. For starters, he went on a rotating dental internship at Carswell Air Force Base, and then to a base where he served as chief of oral surgery and prosthodontics. In 1970 he opened a private practice in Fort Worth, Texas, which he maintained until 2007.

Since 1991, Wathen has been putting his own stamp on the educational process right here at TAMHSC-BCD. After several years spent serving in myriad capacities for the Fort Worth District Dental Society, 10 years as Texas Dental Association editor, and five years as American Dental Association editor, Wathen came on board as the college’s director of continuing education.

By the mid ’90s, he had implemented a successful curriculum-based educational series and, with TAMHSC-BCD Website Administrator Art Upton, had overseen the creation of online continuing education courses, some of the first of their kind in dentistry. Just two years after retiring as associate dean for professional development in 2002, Wathen returned to the TAMHSC-BCD Department of General Dentistry to continue to work in the fourth-year clinic and on special curriculum projects. Current developments include a web-based, Grand Rounds-formatted virtual study club for the general dentistry department.

The year ahead

At the University of Kentucky dental school’s late October homecoming, Wathen became the eighth individual to receive the distinguished alumnus award. He talks excitedly about next fall, when he and his classmates will celebrate their 45th reunion. It’s a close-knit group, considering that at one recent homecoming, Wathen recalls 42 of 45 available classmates were present.

“It was a unique time and a unique experience,” he reflects of his dental school years. “It’s had a profound impact on all of us that graduated. It is an educational model worth cloning.”