In Step With the Times
words by Merry Sue Baum / photography by Pete Byron
Modern dentistry has taken a giant step backward. In fact, it’s gone all the way back to its roots. That may seem odd for a forward-thinking profession, but, actually, reverting to old ways is a good thing. Today, once again, women are practicing dentistry, and they’re doing it in unprecedented numbers.
nbeknownst to most, women dentists have a long history. They’re depicted treating their families’ dental afflictions in prehistoric paintings and engravings.
Written accounts of their dental skills abound. The Talmud, a Jewish sacred book, mentions a woman who treated dental pain with great expertise, and a medical book written by Saint Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval European abbess, explains treating dental problems with herbs and the importance of draining dental abscesses. Some women were even involved in prosthodontics. In 14th century Japan, the Buddhist priestess, Hotokehime, fabricated an entire set of wooden teeth for herself, which are on display today in the Tokyo Museum.
Despite their contributions to dentistry, women were not welcomed in the profession as it matured. It wasn’t until 1899 that the first female earned an American dental degree, and not until the 1970s, that women in numbers began entering the field.
Kim Fenesy, DMD, a 1986 graduate of UMDNJ-New Jersey Dental School, remembers: “There were only 14 women in our class of about 80. In those days, the feeling was that, as a female, you were taking a spot away from a man. Most people believed that women weren’t serious about the profession and would only stay in it until they started families.”
That certainly wasn’t true for Fenesy, who gave up a career as a medical illustrator. Tracing her artistic talent back to her maternal great, great, great grandfather, the court artist for the British royal family, she says that she inherited a second “art gene” from her father, also a talented artist. When she was a child, the two would sit together for hours and do drawing after drawing; and when she was 16, he painted a life-size mural of the milestones of her life on the walls of her room, starting with her as a little girl and ending with her driving a car. “It was absolutely amazing,” she says.
Fenesy also excelled at science, especially biology, so medical illustrating seemed the perfect fit. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and at the same time was a competitive swimmer, devoting any free time to art courses. She was a member of the swim team in both high school and college, where she held an American record in the women’s relay.
Her first job after graduation was in the anatomy department at Springfield College. Later she worked at Projects in Health, Inc, in New York City, illustrating textbooks, patient education materials and brochures for pharmaceutical companies. Her work even took her into the operating room to do drawings of joint replacement surgeries as they were being performed. Photography was not as sophisticated as it is today, and OR lighting made picture taking difficult. As a result, illustrators were sometimes called on to provide visuals for physician education materials.
Then came the computer, which evolved so quickly that, before long, complex anatomical and surgical drawings could be created much faster and cheaper than those done by hand. Fenesy decided it was time to move on. “I have a brother in medicine, so I considered that,” she says. “But he and several of my dentist-friends thought my art background and the manual dexterity I developed made me a perfect candidate for dental school. Rebuilding a tooth, I later discovered, is actually just like carving a mini-sculpture.” She was accepted at several dental schools, and, at 28, started at NJDS.
Even during the interviewing process, she says, admissions committee members asked her over and over if she was sure dental school was for her. “I think they were looking for a chink in my armor,” she says. “But I had given up a lot to go into dentistry, and I was determined to do well. And once the faculty saw that a student was truly committed, they were with you all the way.”
After earning her DMD, Fenesy did a residency, specializing in periodontics at Boston University with rotations in general anesthesia at Kenney Memorial Children’s Hospital, and then returned to New Jersey. She joined a private practice and became an associate professor of clinical periodontics at NJDS. “I finished my residency, and two days later I was on the floor teaching the residents here,” she recalls. “I was grateful to the school for my education, so I wanted to give back.” And give she did.
Along with practicing and teaching, Fenesy became active in recruitment, traveling around the region telling her story to high school and college students. She moved into the position of director of student advisement and support services, and was eventually appointed the NJDS ombudsperson. In that role, she mediated conflicts between students and faculty and/or administration.
Since she was the first ombudsperson at the University and a member of the University/ College Ombudsperson Association, Fenesy’s input was solicited when the ombuds policy was being written. And, when UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) hired an ombudsperson, it was Fenesy who helped to train that person. She helped develop a formal training program for the ombudspersons eventually hired by all of the University’s schools. Today she serves as associate professor in both the Department of Periodontics and the Department of Diagnostic Sciences and is the Associate Dean of Student Affairs.
Like Fenesy, women in dental academia are moving into high-level positions once held strictly by men. In the 56 American dental schools, there are 10 female deans (one at NJDS), a total of 94 female associate and assistant deans, and 77 department chairs. And the ripple effect keeps widening. During this past decade, Marjorie Jeffcoat became the first woman to edit the Journal of the American Dental Association, Rear Admiral Carol Turner became the first woman to serve as chief of the Naval Dental Corps and Michèle Aerden became the first woman president of the Fédération Dentaire International (World Dental Federation). And, as of 2006, four women served on the American Dental Association Board of Trustees, seven held the position of president of the American Association of Dental Research — six since 1992 — and several women have served as president of the International Association of Dental Research. The list goes on and on.
And more women are practicing dentistry than ever before. In 1970, of the 16,533 students enrolled in American dental schools, a mere 231, or 1.4 percent, were women, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). Today, 45 percent of all dental students are women and that figure is expected to jump to 50 percent by the end of the decade, if not sooner. NJDS is no exception. For the last three years running, the school has had more female than male applicants.
Why are more women opting for careers in dentistry? Fenesy has some theories. “I’ve heard from many female as well as male applicants that they want to go into the health professions and also want time to spend with family,” she says. “Those in general dentistry as well as many of the dental specialties can opt not to have a hospital affiliation, so a woman can work regular hours — in a practice, academia or both — and go home to her family at the end of the day. She can also work part time after having children, maintain a good income and return to full-time work when she chooses.” There are those women who do go into dental specialties requiring hospital affiliations, who are successful at juggling family and career. Fenesy says most professional females she knows are used to keeping a lot of balls in the air at once, and, as a result, are extremely good at time management. “There was a former NJDS student who had triplets while she was doing an oral and maxillofacial surgery residency,” she says. “She had the babies and kept right on going; she never missed a beat.”
Fenesy, herself, does quite a balancing act. She has a private practice in Clifton, as does her husband, Lawrence Duca, Jr, DMD (’87). The couple has two children, Erin, 11, and Kyle, 15, and the associate dean is active in the NJDS Dental Alumni Association and the Foundation of UMDNJ. “It takes a lot of planning and family support to do it,” she says. “My husband does everything I do. He got up in the middle of the night when the kids were babies, and we share the household chores equally. We both cook, and on weekends we prepare home cooked meals to eat during the week. The kids help out, too. And we try to spend time together as a family on the weekends.”
As for the future of dentistry, if the trend continues as predicted, more and more women will gravitate to the profession. In fact, Fenesy’s daughter is leaning in that direction. For Christmas last year, the dentist-couple gave her a dental kit that they made themselves. It’s complete with a model that has extractable teeth and a variety of dental instruments. “I would encourage any woman who has hopes and dreams of becoming a dentist to go for it,” says Fenesy. “Today, the doors are wide open.”
Just like they were in ancient times.