Seven Decades of Smiles
In 1945, the Allied forces were on the brink of winning the Second World War. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters topped the Billboard charts, and it would prove to be the last time, thus far, that the Chicago Cubs played in the World Series, which they lost to the Detroit Tigers. And 8-year-old Nancy Farris (née Ducette) had her first appointment at the clinics at what was then known as Tufts College Dental School.
“The very first dentist I had was Dr. Littlefield. He was from Maine, and he was so sweet,” recalls Farris, who has remained a loyal Tufts patient for nearly 70 years. “I just never stopped coming.”
Farris paid 20 cents to take the train from her home in Revere, Mass., to see the dentist at the Tufts clinic, which back then was on Huntington Avenue near Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. The clinic was “pretty state-of-art for the times,” says Hilde Tillman, D49, a professor of public health and community service emerita, who was a dental student around the time Farris first met Dr. Littlefield. “We didn’t have high-speed equipment, and everything took a lot longer. We did the best we could under the circumstances,” says Tillman.
Farris remembers the pediatric clinic as one big room where “young, optimistic dentists” worked on kids in rows of chairs. Over a loudspeaker, students were always paging a supervisor to check on their work.
“It’s so much more private now,” Farris says of the clinics at One Kneeland Street, home of the dental school since 1973. Though she is amazed by the panoramic view of Boston’s waterfront from the newly constructed 15th floor, Farris says modern technology—most visibly symbolized by the computers in every operatory—is the most noticeable difference between the dental school today and the clinics of her youth. But, she says, the quality of care has remained constant over the years.
In June, Farris had her first appointment with Khara Gresham, D14. Farris has lost count, but figures that Gresham is at least the 20th student dentist she’s seen in her seven decades of coming to Tufts for care.
“It didn’t feel like an appointment. It felt like just talking to a friend. She’s a very easy patient,” Gresham says of her 90-minute visit with Farris. “She had pretty much all of her dental work done here, and it all looks good.”
At age 76, Farris has 28 of her own teeth—only her wisdom teeth have been pulled. That makes her pretty unusual. Less than a third of Americans reach the age of 45 without losing at least one tooth to accident, disease or decay, according to the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. And about a quarter of Americans Farris’ age have lost all their teeth, according to the 2009 National Health and Nutrition Survey (NHANES). With tooth loss comes a slew of other health problems, many of them related to poor nutrition—an inevitable result of not being able to chew very well.
Farris is in terrific health overall. She doesn’t think that’s a coincidence, but a consequence of her attention to her oral health. “Most problems, I think, start in the mouth,” she says.
Farris says it was her mother, Irene Ducette, who stressed the importance of oral health. She remembers her mother pulling her into the light from the window, peering into her mouth and whisking her off to the dentist. Ducette grew up on a farm in Sheldon, Vt., and never saw a dentist as a child. Then, in the middle of World War I, she joined the U.S. Navy.
“That’s when she had her first dental care done, in the Navy,” says Farris. “It was apparent to her that when she had children, she would give them good dental care, because she said she was ashamed to even open her mouth when she first came down to Boston.”
Farris carried on the tradition by bringing her own sons, Douglas and Ralph, to the Tufts clinics. She also returned the favor by bringing her mother to Tufts when she was well into her 80s.
“She was a frail old lady,” Farris says. “I’m 76 [and] in much better shape than she was when she was 76.”
Tillman has witnessed the change in the health of generations. Children today arrive at Tufts in much better health than previous generations, she notes, largely thanks to the widespread use of fluoride, better nutrition and the advent of penicillin in 1942. Just as Farris’ oral and overall health are better than those of her mother, “today’s children should be in much better health than today’s older people,” Tillman says. “Demographically, [the Tufts patient population] has changed a lot. People are living longer, healthier lives.”
Farris has spent much of her life in and around Boston. A professional musician, she attended the New England Conservatory before obtaining a master’s degree in organ from Boston University. She played the organ at local houses of worship, from St. Paul’s to Temple Beth Israel, and taught music at Dana Hall and Beaver Country Day schools. She says her long relationship with Tufts even played a role in some of her career success.
“There’s a degree of confidence that you just have to have,” she says. “If you don’t have a clean, attractive mouth, you can’t have that confidence.”
In the mid-1980s, she and her husband, Ralph Farris, who was choir director at the Roxbury Latin School, retired to Bridgton, Maine. These days, Farris turns the three-hour drive to Boston into an event. Sometimes she makes a minivacation out of her trip to the dentist, staying overnight with friends. Or she and her neighbor make appointments for the same day and drive down together.
“Then we go have Vietnamese soup, which is nice and healthy, and then we go home,” she says. “I will continue to go to Tufts as long as I can get myself here.”
“A lot of our patients have grown old with us, which is very gratifying,” says Tillman. “We’ve always been proud of our services.”
Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com.