Dr. Lichtenthal: Alumnus, Teacher, Mentor
by Andrea Kott, MPH
Late on a Wednesday afternoon, Richard Lichtenthal, DDS ’62 heads toward the Columbia University College of Dental Medicine’s (CDM) teaching clinic, where six students await his arrival. Some need his clinical opinion on a procedure; others want him to review case appropriateness for their patient based examinations. He strides down the hall from his office and chats with anyone who stops to say hello, which is pretty much everyone.
Around the school, Dr. Lichtenthal is known for many things: his booming voice and vice-like handshake, his no-nonsense style and dry humor, and his emphasis on comprehensive clinical care. But it’s his dedication to mentoring, for which he is beloved.
“He’s funny, he’s warm, he’s a really good teacher and committed to the students beyond anything else,” says Esther Rubin, DDS ’82, MPH, an assistant clinical professor and former student. “He’s always available. He will walk on the floor and make jokes, and students will joke back. He uncoils their stress.”
Dr. Lichtenthal hadn’t planned on becoming a mentor, let alone a dentist, when he earned his bachelor’s degree in natural science at Muhlenberg College in 1958. Yet, as a painter and sculptor with a passion for anatomy and physiology, he saw in dentistry an opportunity to learn about medicine while working with his hands. “It was terrific, and I could do it!” he says with a grin.
In 1965, he opened a full-time private general practice in Bellmore, Long Island. A decade later, he started volunteering as a clinical instructor in the dental school’s Division of Operative Dentistry and discovered his second calling: teaching. “I enjoy using my knowledge to treat and to teach,” he says. He finds the student-teacher relationship, with its exchange of ideas, especially rewarding. “Students force you to think differently. You then take that new perspective and apply it to your practice. It’s symbiotic.”
Colleagues like Dr. Rubin say that his love for teaching shines brightest when he talks to students. “When you take a class with Dr. Lichtenthal, you can tell his heart is in it,” Dr. Rubin says. “His lectures on gold inlays were amazing. This is the most technically demanding of all drilling restorations. It involves physics, engineering, and a lot of detail. Because he is also an artist, he was able to combine his clinical and creative skills to teach this pinnacle procedure.”
Teaching, it turns out, would become only one of Dr. Lichtenthal’s key roles in the school. A dedicated administrator, he became director of the Division of Operative Dentistry in 1990, serving through 2016. He also closed his private practice. “Even though his responsibilities increased with time,” Dr. Rubin notes, “his foremost commitment has always been to the students.”
Dr. Lichtenthal makes himself accessible not only throughout his 10 hours on campus each day, but also digitally: he welcomes students’ queries via email and text, and doesn’t mind when they fact-check him through a mid-lecture Google search. “Students look up what I’m saying so they can question me,” he says. The more they question, the more intellectually satisfying Dr. Lichtenthal finds the exchanges. “Teaching evolves, not because what you did once was wrong but because of the changing ways students learn,” he says, as his computer pings with email alerts.
Dr. Lichtenthal, 80, has devoted more than half his career to CDM. For those who have learned from him, like Roseanna Graham, DDS ’05, PhD, an associate professor and the director of the Division of Operative Dentistry, his guidance has been pivotal. “In my early days as a faculty member, his support was critical as I developed my skills as a course director, educator, and clinical teacher,” Dr. Graham says. “As I took on increasing responsibilities, his door was always open to me and he never hesitated to offer guidance. These are qualities I truly appreciated.”
To Dr. Lichtenthal, there is no greater praise. “Seeing what you’ve done perpetuated by others makes you proud.”
At 4:30 p.m. he enters the clinic and students buzz around him. “Hi, Dr. L., do you have time to look at this picture?” asks one green-gowned fourth-year who produces an image on her cellphone. “Dr. L., could I get your opinion?” asks another, who studies the doctor’s use of articulating paper to check a patient’s bite. Smiling broadly, Dr. Lichtenthal ambles from chair to chair, probing the teeth of some patients and checking the x-rays of others. Before leaving, he invites students to call him with any questions or concerns. “It’s not a conscious effort,” he says of his mentoring. “Students ask you a question. You go out of your way to help them. That’s what you’re here for.”