At Tufts Dental, She Stood Alone. She Went on to Become Outstanding

In a six-decade career, Esther Kaplan Colchamiro cared for those who needed it most

In the late 1930s, most graduate and professional schools had little interest in educating women. An ambitious young woman from the Bronx sent off a raft of applications anyway. Tufts dental school offered her a chance.

At 104, Esther Kaplan Colchamiro, D42, can’t readily recall the details. But in the fall of 1938 she found herself arriving in Boston to enroll at what was then known as Tufts Dental College, located in a red brick building at 416 Huntington Ave. She instantly stood out: a class photo shows a petite figure with a wide smile in an almost schoolgirlish white blouse and dark skirt, with dozens of male classmates towering above her. It would be about 30 years before women began attending dental school in significant numbers.

Nevertheless, she went on to graduate second in her class and establish herself as a giant in the field of public health dentistry. Over her 60-plus year career, she provided care for thousands of New York City’s neediest children; kept watch over the city’s dental Medicaid and other public health programs; and taught scores of dental students at New York University.

“She spent 60 years striving to make this a better world for all dental patients, but for children in particular,” said David Rosenstein, a fellow member of the American Public Health Association, who spoke at a ceremony honoring Colchamiro in 2002, when she received the John W. Knutson Distinguished Service Award, one of the highest honors in the field, and just one of a lengthy list of awards and recognitions Colchamiro collected throughout her career. “Esther has been a beacon of light in our field since the day she entered it.”

Colchamiro's 12-year-old great-granddaughter shares a birthday cake with her great-grandmother.

Colchamiro and her great-granddaughter Malkah Rosen share a cake at the combined celebration of Malkah's Bat Mitzvah and Colchamiro's 100th birthday in 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Rosen


At the beginning of Colchamiro’s career, about 3% of dentists in the U.S. were women, and that proportion stayed fairly consistent until about 1970, according to the Journal of the American Dental Association. Today, nearly 35% of practicing dentists are women, and with women dental graduates outpacing men, they are expected to account for 50% by 2040. At Tufts, where Colchamiro once stood alone, women students have outnumbered their male classmates most years since 2008.

Persistence and Grace

“If there is a set of characteristics we need in this field, it is endurance, persistence, and the ability to be creative and adaptive over the long haul. She has done all of this with grace,” said another colleague, John P. Brown, at the 2002 Knutson award ceremony. Remarks from the event were published in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry.

Persistence, grace, humility: those are the words that surface again and again from colleagues and especially from Colchamiro’s large family. “She is my hero,” says Susan Tregerman, her first cousin once removed. “She’s a compassionate, kind person who just seemed to be excited about the world.” A generation younger than Colchamiro, Tregerman and her brother, Stephen Colchamiro, refer to her as their Aunt Esther.

Colchamiro in the Tufts student dental clinic 1942.

A photo of Colchamiro from Tufts Dental College's 1942 yearbook carries the caption, "Grace Personified." Photo: Tufts University School of Dental Medicine

Stephen Colchamiro became a public health dentist, too, and is in his 50th year of teaching at Harvard School of Dental Medicine. “She was always quietly supportive of everything I did. She did not brag about her accomplishments at all,” he says. So much so, that early in his career, he was unaware of her standing. But, he adds, he constantly runs into other dentists who have worked or trained with her, or who instantly know the Colchamiro name.

Today, Esther Colchamiro lives with her daughter and one of her 29 great-grandchildren, in the same Queens co-op apartment she and her husband, Ralph, bought in 1951. The Colchamiros come from the community of Greek Jews known as Romaniote, who follow a unique set of customs, belonging neither to the Sephardi nor Ashkenazi traditions.

Having grown up in the Bronx, she attended Hunter College, the women’s college of New York City’s then-free university system. She had an interest in what made people tick, and considered going into psychology or psychiatry, her relatives say.  She applied to over a dozen graduate programs and dental schools and was accepted at one: Tufts Dental.

In the late ’30s, Tufts was one of the few dental schools that had a long history of enrolling women; its first female graduate was in the class of 1890. In fact, many dental schools, such as neighboring Harvard, were still not accepting women when Colchamiro arrived at Tufts. But even at Tufts, women dental students were few; from 1941 to 1945, the school—now Tufts University School of Dental Medicine—counts only six other women graduates.

From the stories she told her children, Colchamiro looked back fondly on her dental school experience. She’d talk about how her male classmates good-naturedly teased her. “In anatomy class, they would put bones in her pocket!” her daughter, Rachel Rosen, reports.

Colchamiro in her office as director of dental Medicaid for New York City.

Colchamiro in her office as director of dental Medicaid for New York City. Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Rosen

The Cookies—and More

Colchamiro started her career at the Guggenheim pediatric dental clinic in Manhattan, which became the largest dental public health program in the country. Busloads of public-school kids would arrive daily for the dental care they almost certainly would not have received otherwise. Colchamiro’s instinct for connecting with people, particularly children, served her well.

“She was able to work on very difficult children,” Rosen says. “Whenever they were having trouble with a patient, they would call my mother in, and she was able to get the work done.”

Colchamiro in the clinic at New York University College of Dentistry in 1999.

Colchamiro in the clinic at New York University College of Dentistry in 1999. Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Rosen

After the Guggenheim clinic closed in 1967, Colchamiro earned a master’s degree in public health from Columbia University. She then worked for the New York City Department of Health, where, among other positions, she was director of dental Medicaid. She served on the boards of numerous professional organizations.

She closed out a six-decade career as a clinical professor of pediatric dentistry at NYU; while there, she established a dental sealant program for homeless children. 

Sometimes, harsh realities could not be avoided. At the Guggenheim, “after 25 years, when she should have been named chairperson, she was passed over because she was a woman. She was, however, offered an apology,” said Rosenstein, in 2002. “She suffered enormously, but in silence as she pursued her career with diligence and a grace most of us will never know.”

Whatever professional slights or difficulties Colchamiro encountered, she did not let them define her or her career, Rosen says. “My mother brought me up saying there’s nothing you can’t do if you want to do it. She didn’t let anything stop her.”

In the world of Colchamiro’s youth, her cousin Stephen Colchamiro says, women were supposed to marry another Greek Jew, cook, and raise a family. “Well, she did all that,” he says. In Esther’s case, she simply combined it with an outstanding career.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than her famous home-baked cookies. She was known for bringing those cookies to all occasions—not just family gatherings or parties, but professional meetings and conference sessions, too.

“It was not just about the cookies,” Tregerman says. “She left something of herself with you.”

Back to Top