Remembering Hilde Tillman, D49

The School of Dental Medicine professor emerita taught for fifty-nine years, and devoted her career to improving dental care for the elderly
Professor emerita Hilde Tillman photographed at the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine. Tillman, who died on December 2, was devoted to providing dental care for elderly patients and passing that knowledge to her students.
Hilde Tillman was “way ahead of her time,” said Mary-Jane Hanlon, D97, associate dean of clinical affairs at the School of Dental Medicine. Above, a 2016 portrait of Tillman at the dental school. Photo: Anna Miller
December 6, 2019

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Hilde Tillman, D49, who taught generations of Tufts dental students, championed oral health care for the elderly, and was an indelible part of the School of Dental Medicine’s story, died December 2, just days after her ninety-sixth birthday.

“Long before interprofessional practice and patient-centered care became fashionable, she recognized its tremendous value and preached how critical dental health was to older adults,” said Karin Arsenault, D94, clinical director of the dental school’s geriatric center program, which Tillman helped establish and led for many years.

Hilde Tillman posed with School of Dental Medicine Dean Emeritus Lonnie Norris after accepting her faculty emerita certificate in 2011. Photo: Alonso Nichols“She was way ahead of her time,” said Mary-Jane Hanlon, D97, associate dean of clinical affairs at the School of Dental Medicine. Both Hanlon and Arsenault were among the hundreds of students Tillman taught during her almost-six-decade career at the dental school. They were also alumnae who returned to academia after practicing elsewhere, and Tillman became a mentor to them at One Kneeland Street. As one of the very few women in dental school in the mid- to late-1940s, “she did things women were not doing back then,” Hanlon said, and became a role model for women in dentistry.

Tillman, a clinical professor emerita of public health and community service, joined the dental faculty as an instructor in oral pathology in 1960 and became a professor in 1988. She was honored with the Dean’s Medal from the School of Dental Medicine in 2016, and received many professional honors throughout her career, including the 2007 Alpha Omega International Award for her contributions to geriatric dentistry; the Provost’s Award for Outstanding Teaching in 2004; and the President’s Award for Outstanding Faculty at Tufts in 1999. She received major research grants from the American Cancer Society and the National Institute on Aging. She was a lifetime member of the dental honor society Omicron Kappa Upsilon.

A hallmark of the geriatric program was its marriage of classroom and clinical work with community outreach, bringing care to elderly patients at senior centers and nursing homes. Until recently she worked in conjunction with Boston’s Elderly Commission to provide free dental screenings for older and disabled people.

After Arsenault began her role at the geriatric program this past January, she shared an office with Tillman. “I looked forward to my ‘Tuesdays with Dr. Tillman,’” Arsenault said. “Over lunch—her favorite salad with crab meat and half an English muffin—we would talk about our profession, life, family, her deep affection for her late husband, Gene, travel, religion, and tennis.” Eugene Tillman, D37, who died in 2008, was also a faculty member at the dental school.

Arsenault said Tillman also reminisced about her childhood in Berlin and her experience as one of the Jewish children who were evacuated from Germany and other Nazi-occupied areas in the Kindertransports of the late 1930s. She arrived in the United Kingdom before later making her way with other refugees to the U.S. “Because of what she went through, I think that gave her the strength she had,” said Hanlon. “I admired her tenacity and her ability to do well, excel, and be a leader.”

Tillman was a graduate of Simmons College and after graduating from dental school at Tufts, completed postgraduate training at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. She lived with her husband—and her beloved whippets and Siamese cats—in Dover, Massachusetts. The Tillmans were founding members of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley.

“Dr. Tillman was always interested in the wellbeing of others outside of the workplace,” said Mark Nehring, chair of the department of public health and community service. “Her memory of details from conversations was unmatched.”

Above all, Tillman valued her role as a teacher. Nehring recalled one time when he referred to what he called Tillman’s “legacy,” the geriatric program, from which the school could continue to build. “She replied that she appreciated the comment,” Nehring said. But, she added, “you know, the students are my legacy, through the care they will provide to geriatric patients.”

Donations in Tillman’s memory may be made to Tufts School of Dental Medicine Geriatrics Program, c/o Office of Development and Alumni Relations, One Kneeland Street, Boston, MA 02111, or dental.tufts.edu/alumni/giving.     

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.