HSDM/Oral Health Interviews


Health History

Headshot of George Blue Spruce Jr. Date of photograph and photographer unknown.

George Blue Spruce Jr. was born on January 16, 1931 at the Santa Fe Indian Hospital School. When Dr. Blue Spruce graduated from Creighton University School of Dentistry in 1956, he was the first American Indian person to graduate from dental school. Throughout his career, Dr. Blue Spruce has recruited and trained other American Indian people to enter dentistry and serve those living on American Indian reservations.

Dr. Blue Spruce spent 21 years in the Indian Health Service, worked with the World Health Organization in South America, wrote drafts of legislation of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 1976, and served as assistant surgeon general and director of the Indian Health Service for the Phoenix area. He is currently an assistant dean at the A.T. Still University/Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health in Mesa, Arizona, and founder of the American Indian Dental Association.

Learn more about Dr. Blue Spruce in his memoir, Searching for My Destiny.

George Blue Spruce Jr. in his US Navy uniform. Date of photograph and photographer unknown.

Interview Transcript (pdf)

“I spent my growing up years at the Santa Fe Indian School, with the exception of several years during World War II when my dad was in the Navy and we moved out to California.”

“My mother and father were of the generation that was forced into the federal boarding schools to be assimilated into the mainstream of society.”

“I was the first American Indian to be enrolled at Creighton University.  And I began to realize that it was going to be very much living in a fishbowl, with everybody observing me and what I was doing as an American Indian.”

“I was the first director of the Indian programs that were implemented under Section 774(b) of the manpower development legislation of 1971, where for the very first time the federal government was going to recruit ethnic minorities, underserved populations, and women into the doctored health professions.”

“When I got out to the American Indian reservations, they had no running water or no electricity, and so I had to beg, borrow, and steal from the public schools to be able to practice dentistry.”

“After the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975, I was asked to write the legislation for Title I of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and that was to initiate scholarships for American Indian students interested in health careers.”

“I looked behind me, and I saw very few American Indians going through to become doctored health professionals.  And so I thought that I would think very seriously about an organization that would help promote that effort.”

Photo courtesy of Matthew Plumber.

Graduated Harvard School of Dental Medicine Class of 1973

Matthew W. Plummer, Jr. grew up in Houston, Texas, in a segregated community in the 1950s and 1960s. Graduating summa cum laude from Phillis Wheatley High School in 1961, he entered Morehouse College graduating in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a minor in biology. After teaching for two years in Kenya with the Peace Corps, and a year and a half in the Houston public school system, Matthew Plummer entered Harvard School of Dental Medicine in 1969. He was among the 16 students comprising the first class of diverse students at HMS and HSDM, earning a Doctor of Dental Medicine degree in 1973 and a Master of Public Health degree from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

Dr. Plummer conducted the first study of dental care for the developmentally disabled population in Texas.  In 1979, Dr. Plummer entered private practice in his home city of Houston and he continues to practice today, providing dental services to under-served populations in the Harris County Hospital District. Dr. Matthew Plummer, Jr. is President of Cosmetic Dentistry of Texas.

Interview Transcript (pdf)

“I grew up in Houston, Texas, in a segregated community.” (time)

“I guess 11 to 12, my mother took me to a dentist who had never done braces before, but he wanted to try to do braces.  And so I was one of his first patients.” (time)

“I left Morehouse in ’65, joined the Peace Corps, and I had a two-year tour in Kenya, East Africa.  That was also an interesting experience.  I’d never been out of the country before, obviously, and I’d never been -- I had never been north before.  I hadn’t been anywhere, actually, before I went to Morehouse.” (time)

“My mother said, “Apply to Harvard.”  And I clearly remember telling Mama, I said, “Mama, Harvard is not gonna accept a black kid with a big afro.” And she said, “That’s OK, son.  Apply to Harvard.”  And, of course, in those days, what your parents told you what to do, you did it, right?” (time)

“After my acceptance, Jim Mulvihill … came to Houston.  We talked about finances, how I would finance my dental education.  And he said … he was working on a situation that would help me alleviate some of the cost.  And that situation was he had contacted Wellesley College to see if they could employ my wife and I as house parents.  And that came through:  my wife and I were the first house parents at Wellesley College.” (time)

“I also served as a minority recruiter for the Medical School, the dental school, and the School of Public Health.” (time)

“And to be referred to as Black Panthers was extremely shocking, because, you know, we thought Boston would be different.  We thought Boston, the bastion of liberalism, surely the racist experiences that we were accustomed to in the South would surely not be prevalent in Boston.” (time)

“I think it was ’72 to ’74.  While I was at the dental school, I realized, and we all realized, there were very few black and brown students at the -- at Harvard Medical School and Harvard dental school.” (time)

“That project actually served as the blueprint for the explosion of minority programs in predominantly white dental schools across the country during the, you know, the late ’70s and early ’80s.” (time)

“We also did a survey of dental services for non-institutionalized developmentally disabled persons in the state of Texas.” (time)

“Harvard has an obligation to continue the diversity program in the years to come.” (time)

Headshot of Reuben C. Warren. Date of photograph and photographer unknown.

Director, National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care 

Dr. Reuben C. Warren earned his undergraduate degree from San Francisco State University, and his dental degree from Meharry Medical College. He also earned his MPH and PhD from the Harvard School of Public Health, as well as a Master of Divinity from the Interdenominational Theological Center. 

He is currently the Director of the National Center for Bioethics in Research and Health Care and Professor of Bioethics at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. From 1988-1997, Dr. Warren served as Associate Director for Minority Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Interview Transcript (pdf)

“My interest in dentistry really was trying to resond to unnecessary suffering, not life or death…People are really attentive about life or death situations, but suffering is something that’s overlooked, so I really felt that I wanted to do something to reduce the suffering in populations who I viewed were suffering the most, including me.”

“Meharry chose me…in being at Meharry, I understood that dentistry was a small picture. The bigger picture was community oral health.”

“I realized at my time at Meharry that one-on-one, one patient at a time was not going to do it. So I looked for a way to engage in population health, and that brought me into formal education in public health.”

“Oral health needs are met after systemic health needs are met; so you just can’t go directly to oral health without going through the whole gamut of health concerns.”

“Upon graduating from Harvard School of Public Health and finishing the residency, I joined the faculty of the University of Lagos, a relatively new dental school. It was part of the medical school.”

“I was able to look at the foundation for people to have hope when hope seemed hopeless and to have faith when faith seemed impossible, and it was very inspiring…It helped to broaden my description of health…I understood from my seminary and other limited experience that spirituality is a critical part of health – not religion, per se, but spirituality.”

“We need to rethink what health is and spend less time defining it and more time describing it and then design strategies based upon that broadened description of health.”

“Perfection is always the goal, and you can’t lose sight of what you think perfection ought to be, and in the midst of disaster, despair, it gets muddled, and if you lose that vision, you become part of the problem as opposed to part of its resolve.”

Graduated Harvard School of Dental Medicine Class of 1989

Growing up in El Salvador Sonia Molina knew that dentistry was in her future. Fleeing political turmoil, she and her mother and siblings moved to California when she was 17 years of age. Sonia Molina attended California State University, Long Beach, where she graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biomedical Sciences. She then matriculated at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, receiving her Doctor of Dental Medicine Degree and Master of Public Health Degree. She completed her postdoctoral studies in Endodontics at the UCLA School of Dentistry. Dr. Molina is President of Molina Endodontics, a dental office specializing in internal oral surgeries. 

Interview Transcript (pdf)

“When I was in El Salvador, I was already planning on going to dental school.  In El Salvador, most of the dentists are women”

“My father died when I was five, and my mother only completed high school.  … So it was very hard for her to get a job in El Salvador.”

“It came down to two schools at the end.  UC-San Francisco, and Harvard.  And, they were both, at that time, considered like the top two schools in the country.”

“You know, I started noticing things like that, that here, I hadn’t really noticed.”

“So they said, you know, you have to repeat the year or leave.  And so I met with Dr. Henry.  … I couldn’t come home and say, I fail, because a lot of the people in my community, in my church, they were looking up to me...”

“Then second year, it got easier, and third year, I was coasting; I was getting honors because by then, I was working with patients… it was more meaningful than just reading books.”

“I became an endodontist; I opened my own practice, again, not knowing what I was getting myself into.”

“I helped start a group called SALEF, a Salvadorian organization that helps Salvadorians with money to go to college, and also does things like civics, engagement, get out the vote, literacy programs, basically help the community become integrated into the mainstream community.”

“I feel very strongly … that education is the way of getting out of poverty.”

Associate Dean for Prevention and Public Health Sciences and Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, Chicago College of Dentistry

Dr. Caswell A. Evans Jr. DDS, MPH, is Associate Dean for Prevention and Public Health Sciences and Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, Chicago College of Dentistry. 

Dr. Evans was the executive editor and project director for Oral Health in America: A Report of the Surgeon General, released in May 2000. He directed the development of the National Call To Action to Promote Oral Health, released in April 2003. 

Dr. Evans served as Director of Public Health Programs and Services for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services for twelve years. He also served as director of the County Division of the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health in Washington State.

He is a past-president of the American Public Health Association and the American Association of Public Health Dentistry. Dr. Evans is a diplomate of the American Board of Dental Public Health and a past-president of that Board. He was elected into the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences in 1992.

Dr. Evans is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Dental and Oral Surgery in New York City, and he earned his masters of public health degree from the University of Michigan.

Assistant Professor of Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology, Harvard School of Dental Medicine

Dr. Brian J. Swann is Chief of Oral Health Services for the Cambridge Health Alliance and conducts the Oral Physician Program within the General Practice Residency Program. At the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, he is Assistant Professor of Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology.

Dr. Swann graduated from the University of California, San Francisco, School of Dentistry. After practicing for 30 years in California, he switched gears to focus on public health and dentistry, and became the first Joseph L. Henry Fellow in Minority Health Policy at Harvard Medical School. He received a Master of Public Health degree from the Harvard School of Public Health and was presented with the Albert Schweitzer Award in recognition of his commitment to global outreach.

He is involved with projects in Boston Massachusetts, Jamaica, and Rwanda, and developed an oral health care education project for the Wampanoag Tribe on Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island. The project, the Wampanoag Tribe Oral Health Relief Effort, was founded in 2013 and won a Dean’s Community Service Award in 2018 and 2021.

Interview Transcript (pdf)

“So the, UCSF had a large contingency of black employees, and when they did not see students of African descent in the student body, they went on strike.”

“When I got interviewed, the assistant dean, said, ‘Where else did you apply?’ I said, ‘Nowhere else.’ She said, ‘Oh, that’s too bad.’ I said, ‘Why?’ and she ways, ‘Because your faculty doesn’t want to teach people like you. And if you have another option, I advise you to take it, because you’re going to catch hell here.”

“I did get accepted by the Commonwealth Fund Fellowship in Minority Health Policy at Harvard University. But I did not get accepted initially by the School of Public Health.”

“… one of the vice presidents of the California Boards said that, ‘you know, you guys might bully your way through dental school, but you will not pass the California boards.”

“So I put the instruments that I needed and boiled them for 30 minutes, and extracted her tooth at the kitchen table.”

“He called me up, and says, ‘Brian, I see that you want to hold off for a year. That’s fine. But let me tell you what’s behind door number two.’ ”

“I took them to Kenya and to Zanzibar on one trip, and we also got together and I took them to Ethiopia for the first international dental conference in that country, of 76 million people that only had 48 dentists.”

“…and so Harvard Dental School now does a lot of global oral health projects, which I’m happy to say I was part of the team that initiated that.”

“…when I said the word dentist, it seemed like everything just went towards teeth, and I have a problem with that, because we are doing more than just teeth.”

“I want the patients to be confused, to a point, in order to ask the question, what is an oral  physician?”

"We started the program in a collaboration with Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, the Wampanoag tribe, and Harvard School of Dental Medicine.”

“The number of African Americans to come through Harvard Dental School has been very, very dismal, and small.”

“I mean Rwanda, we started this program, had 25 dentist for 11 million people. Now they have 40 dentists that we’ve graduated.”

“If you only come here to learn how to fix teeth, then you need to go somewhere else. Because Harvard prides itself on training leaders…”