Alfred Owre, College of Dental Medicine Dean, 1927-1933

portrait of Alfred Owre

This is another in an occasional series of profiles of past Columbia University Irving Medical Center leaders

Alfred Owre, who served as Dean of the College of Dental Medicine, 1927-1933, arrived at Columbia with much promise only to leave in a cloud of controversy a few years later.  Perhaps no other leader of the University’s health sciences schools has had such a tumultuous tenure.

Born in 1870 in Hammerfest, Norway, while his immigrant parents were paying a visit to their homeland, Owre was raised in Norway and Minnesota. He graduated from the University of Minnesota with both medical and dental degrees and after a few years of private practice joined the faculty of the UMN dental school.  By 1902 he was a full professor and three years later was named Dean.

Owre was a strong advocate of strengthening the standards of American dental education. In the early 20th century American dentistry was still plagued by for-profit schools – commercial enterprises that were more interested in whether students could pay, rather than being able to do the work.  As late as 1925, only 16 of 44 U.S. dental schools required even a high school diploma for admission.

In 1908 Owre was one of the founders of the Dental Faculties Association of American Universities, an organization devoted to promoting scientific dental education in opposition to the commercial schools.  When in 1921 the Carnegie Foundation decided to conduct a survey of American and Canadian dental education under the leadership of Columbia University biochemist and dental educator William J. Gies, Owre was one of the survey’s consultants.

All this boded well for Owre’s reception at Columbia when he arrived in 1927 to lead the dental school.  Like the University of Minnesota, Columbia’s dental school was fully-integrated into a university and it had close ties to the medical school.  Though only founded in 1916, the School of Dental and Oral Surgery (as the College of Dental Medicine was then called) had recently strengthened itself with its 1923 merger with the older and better-established College of Dental & Oral Surgery of New York.

However, Owre had already made known his strong belief that dentistry should be a specialty of medicine rather than its own profession.  When it was published in 1926, the Gies Report on dental education came out against this strategy for a variety of practical reasons.  Owre also advocated for having “routine” dental work left to well-trained technicians, supervised by university-educated dentists who would concentrate on the more difficult surgical and medical issues of the oral cavity.  Neither of  his stances were in the mainstream of American dental opinion.

These differences on the direction of the dental profession might have been manageable if Owre had been more diplomatic and tactful.  Unfortunately, his strong feelings on the subject led him to needlessly antagonize those who could have been allies.  At the First International Congress of the International Stomatological Association held in Budapest in 1931, Owre publicly attacked both American dental education and the findings of the Gies Report in a 93-page lecture which seemed to suggest that Gies had been unduly influenced by the for-profit schools to recommend lower standards of dental education.[1]

Gies – who, it should be remembered, was now a colleague of Owre’s at Columbia and one of the founders of its dental school – was understandably upset by these charges.  His reply, published in the Journal of Dental Research, refuted Owre’s statements in an article that described his remarks as, among other things, “prejudiced,” “unfair,” a “gross misrepresentation,” and displaying “a wanton disregard for the truth.”[2] The breach was complete.

In preparation for the dental school’s move to the new Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in 1928, Owre proposed a new dental service for “persons in moderate circumstance” who did not qualify for charity care but might find it difficult to afford private fees.[3]  Not surprisingly, New York City’s dentists saw this as an attack on their livelihood and opposed it vigorously.

By 1933 Owre had alienated so much of the dental community that his own faculty petitioned Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler to remove him as Dean.  Butler instead gave him a yearlong leave of absence but Owre resigned the next year and never returned to Columbia. He died in January 1935.[4]

With Owre’s departure, President Butler appointed medical school dean Willard Rappleye as acting dean of the School of Dental and Oral Surgery. That appointment would be made permanent the following year and Rappleye would hold the dual roles of dean of the medical and dental schools until his retirement in 1958. The dental school would not have its own leader until 1959 when Gilbert P. Smith was named Dean.

Sources for this sketch include Allan J. Formicola’s A Dental School on University Lines: The Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, 1916-2016 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), p. 18-24; and David A. Nash, “Alfred Owre: Revisiting the Thought of a Distinguished, Though Controversial, Early Twentieth-Century Dental Educator,” Journal of Dental Education, v. 77, n. 8 (Aug. 2013), p. 972-981.  The only biography, Netta W. Wilson’s Alfred Owre: Dentistry's Militant Educator (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1937), is not available electronically and so was unable to be consulted.

[1] Owre A. “Some phases of dental education in the United States.” Proceedings of the First International Congress of the International Association of Stomatology, Budapest, September 2-7, 1931.

[2] Gies, W. J. “Comment on some misstatements regarding the Carnegie Foundation’s study of dental education.” J Dent Res, 12:865 (1932).

[3] “New Dental Clinic to Cut Rising Costs,” New York Times, Feb. 20, 1928, p. 8.

[4] “Dr. Alfred Owre, Educator, is Dead,” New York Times, Jan. 4, 1935, p. 21.

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Thank you for highlighting Dean Owre. Although it was a difficult time for him and his vision for dentistry at Columbia at the time, his view of dentistry as integral with medicine has moved closer to realization over the past two decades. The Gies Report has guided dental education in the U. S. and Canada since its publication in 1926. Both Owre and Gies recognized that dentistry would progress through research. Research in dentistry has led to a reconnection of the oral cavity with the rest of the body and a recognization of the systemic ramifications of oral disease.

I enjoyed re-connecting with Alfred Owre and William J. Gies in preparing the 100 year anniversary book, “The Columbia University College of Dental Medicine 1916-2016”. Columbia was truly fortunate to have both of these leaders during its formative years set a strong foundation for the school’s future.