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Dr. Clifton Dummett dies at 92

Dentistry loses renowned historian, one of its ‘guiding lights’

Los Angeles—In 1957, Dr. Clifton O. Dummett, then the 36-year-old editor of the National Dental Association journal, penned a call to action that would have a profound impact on membership practices in the ADA while adding momentum to the struggle to eliminate discrimination in organized dentistry.

It was only the beginning of a career that would last another 56 years. Dr. Dummett, the prolific author, teacher, dental historian, advocate for civil rights and social justice, and giant in American dentistry, died Sept. 7 at the age of 92.

IMAGE: Dr. Dummett
Dr. Dummett: “He was always getting ideas for research projects, the same way musicians get ideas for a concerto.”
The Ostrow School of Dentistry at the University of Southern California, where he was distinguished professor emeritus, taught dental history and led the community dentistry department, announced his passing on its website.

“The Ostrow School of Dentistry, and the profession of dentistry as a whole, has lost one of its guiding lights,” said Dr. Avishai Sadan, dean. “He was a consummate teacher, respected leader and true humanitarian. His legacy and his philosophies have made a tremendous, lasting impact on our school.”

Dr. Dummett was a retired life member of the ADA who held membership for 62 years. He was given honorary ADA membership in 1969. In 2009, at the age of 90, he served as a consultant on the development of the ADA’s 150th anniversary book.

A close friend of Dr. Harold Hillenbrand, ADA executive director from 1946-69, Dr. Dummett and his wife, Lois Doyle Dummett, co-authored a definitive biography of Dr. Hillenbrand, “The Hillenbrand Era: Organized Dentistry’s Glanzperiode” (1986). 

Having served as editor of the National Dental Association journal for 22 years, he and Lois went on to write a history of the National Dental Association, “NDA II: The Story of America’s Second National Dental Association” (2000).

Dr. Dummett was a key player as events unfolded during the turbulent period leading up to the civil rights era in American history. A staunch advocate for equal rights, he was compelled to take action at a time when some in organized dentistry were reluctant to codify membership policies that were open to all races. 

“This was an enormous undertaking for him,” said Dr. Jack Gottschalk, chair emeritus of the National Museum of Dentistry Board of Visitors and a past president of the American Academy of the History of Dentistry, who called Dr. Dummett “a wonderful friend.” “Having membership available to any ethical dentist is an accepted practice today but when he began pushing for it, it was a monumental change for the profession.” 

Black dentists who were denied membership in some ADA dental societies began forming associations of their own as far back as 1900. Though the roots of the organization were planted years earlier, the National Dental Association—the national organization of African American dentists—was founded in 1932.

The ADA’s history with race-based restrictions on membership was long and complicated. While the ADA’s national Constitution and Bylaws allowed membership to any ethical dentist practicing in the United States without any other conditions, the Bylaws required that dentists join by way of a constituent or component society, some of which refused membership solely on the basis of race. The ADA allowed its societies to self-govern so it had never closely examined membership policies until the 1950s, when Association leaders felt it was time to address them.

It was at Dr. Dummett’s urging in 1958 that the NDA brought the issue to the ADA’s attention. Dr. Dummett wrote an editorial in the NDA journal in 1957 that called for the NDA to promote “the full and unhampered participation of all its members in American dentistry” and advocated for “the ultimate elimination of segregation within the professions.” In 1958, the NDA adopted a resolution that requested that the ADA urge its societies to eliminate racially restrictive membership policies, which led to the 1962 ADA House of Delegates’ resolution to refuse seating of delegates from any state whose bylaws pertaining to race conflicted with those of the parent organization.

It wasn’t the only time that Dr. Dummett would take a bold stand on equal rights. He joined the faculty of the Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry in 1942 with the goal of starting a periodontics program and in 1947 was appointed dean of the School of Dentistry—at age 28 the youngest dean to lead a dental school. He resigned in protest over Meharry Medical College’s agreement to participate in the Regional Plan for Education of the Southern States that intended to keep segregation alive in educational institutions through financial support to Meharry that also designated the college a blacks-only institution. 

The youngest son of a dentist, Clifton Orrin Dummett was born in Georgetown, British Guyana, in 1919. He came to the U.S. in 1936 to begin predental studies at the Howard University College of Dentistry. He earned his dental degree and completed specialty training in periodontics at the Northwestern University Dental School and a master’s in public health from the University of Michigan. He became a U.S. citizen in 1944.

Dr. Dummett was appointed chief of dental services at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1949 and later served in the same post at the VA Research Hospital in Chicago. In 1954, he joined the U.S. Armed Services and was commissioned Major, USAF Dental Corps. He served for 24 years—earning the rank of lieutenant colonel and receiving the Certificate of Merit of the Air Force Systems Command. He arrived at USC in 1966, where he dedicated himself to addressing the nation’s shortage of minority dentists.

Dr. Dummett was recognized by many of his students for his insistence on addressing them as “Doctor” from their first day in dental school.

“He was like a father to me,” said Dr. Carol Gomez Summerhays, ADA 13th District Trustee and one of Dr. Dummett’s students at USC. His support got her involved in organized dentistry again after a break during which she started a family and tended to her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Dummett called Dr. Summerhays regularly to check in and eventually sent a letter to the California Dental Association to nominate her for a volunteer position. She later became president of CDA.

“None of us arrives where we are on our own,” said Dr. Summerhays. “Without Dr. Dummett as a longtime mentor and friend, I would not have become involved in organized dentistry to this extent. Each of us needs someone who believes in us.”

During his illustrious career, Dr. Dummett served as president of the American Academy of the History of Dentistry, American Association of Dental Editors, International Association of Dental Research and the Los Angeles Dental Society. He was one of the first three dentists elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and was the recipient of the NDA Legend Award; the Callahan Medal recognizing excellence in the profession; the William J. Gies Award of the American College of Dentists; and honorary doctorates from Northwestern University (1976), the University of Pennsylvania (1978) and Meharry Medical College (2004).

Dr. Dummett spent his later years immersed in writing projects.

“He loved writing with a passion and he pursued it that way,” said Lois, his wife of 68 years. “He was always getting ideas for research projects, the same way musicians get ideas for a concerto. All of his ideas would develop in his mind. I was always surprised at how prolific he was from his pen.”

“I don’t know a gentleman who expressed himself any more beautifully than Cliff did,” said Dr. Gottschalk. “He loved to study things, and was able to write with such a balanced view of history. I never heard him say a mean word about anyone. He was one of warmest and most compassionate people I ever met but a man with very strong principles.”

He wrote more than 300 articles on dental history and public health, and social and community issues published in dental, medical, hospital and health journals in the U.S. and around the world. He co-authored books, many with Lois. Their son, Dr. Clifton Dummett Jr., professor of pediatric dentistry at the Louisiana State University School of Dentistry, died in 2006.

IMAGE: Dr. Dummett was part of a group of officers from the National Dental Association who sat down with ADA officers during the 1962 Annual Session in Miami to discuss restrictive membership policies
Landmark action: Dr. Dummett (standing, second from right) was part of a group of officers from the National Dental Association who sat down with ADA officers during the 1962 Annual Session in Miami to discuss restrictive membership policies. Also pictured (sitting, from left) are Dr. Richard Layne, NDA president; Dr. Gerald D. Timmons, ADA president-elect; Dr. Russell A. Dixon, NDA past president and dean of the Howard University College of Dentistry; and Dr. Harold Hillenbrand, ADA secretary; (standing from left) Dr. Matthew Mitchell, NDA president-elect; Dr. James Wallace Jr., secretary of the NDA executive board; Dr. John R. Abel, ADA president; and Dr. G. W. Hawkins, a member of the NDA executive board.