Allan Formicola speaks at the CDM Centennial Lecture

A History of Columbia Dental: Its Challenges, Triumphs, and Climb to the Top

Allan Formicola, DDS, dean emeritus of the College of Dental Medicine, spoke on Oct. 18, 2016, to a packed room about the 100-year history of the school, the subject of his book "A Dental School on University Lines." Photo: Charles Manley


By Andrea Kott, MPH

            They were known as the ‘grin and bear it years,’ when a dental filling cost $2, a price too steep for most people who instead resorted to tooth extraction; water was un-fluoridated, caries were rampant, and Novocain was undiscovered. It was 1916, the early days of the Columbia University Dental School—now the College of Dental Medicine—whose approaching centennial inspired professor and dean emeritus Allan J. Formicola, DDS, to write the book,  The Columbia University College of Dental Medicine 1916-2016: A Dental School on University Lines.

            The 270-page history explores the school’s evolution, from its early days with just two students in 1916 to its current role as a world-renowned institution on the cutting edge of research, treatment, and education. “It brings to the forefront how the school was formed, what it was about, its principles and how it’s faring today,” says Dr. Formicola.

            Full of fascinating facts and anecdotes, the book includes the story of the 1935 murder of Arthur Rowe, DDS, then dean of the school who was killed at his desk. “He was shot by a crazed employee who also killed a second faculty member, wounded a third and then committed suicide,” explains Dr. Formicola, who served as dean from 1978 to 2001. Mostly, however, the book examines the trials and tribulations of building the College of Dental Medicine from the ground up. “Raising money for the school was the first of many problems,” Dr. Formicola says. “It’s still a constant problem for all private schools.”

Allan Formicola with Patient
Allan Formicola, dean emeritus of the College of Dental Medicine, shown caring for a patient. 

            Attracting students who could meet the school’s high academic standards was also difficult. “In 1919, our dental school was the first in the nation to require two years of college as an entry requirement. Prior to that point you could enroll in dental school right after high school,” Dr. Formicola notes. Once enrolled, students had to manage the introductory curricula of the College of Dental Medicine and the College of Physicians and Surgeons (P&S).  The founding document of the dental school stated that the dental course in the first two years was to be identical with and part of the medical course.  “The dental school started in the medical school when it was on 59th Street and Amsterdam Avenue,” Dr. Formicola explains. In 1928, when the medical school moved to 168th Street, the dental school followed. “We had to make sure we could enroll students who could function in that kind of environment.”

            Dr. Formicola further explained how the field of dentistry was organized in relation to medicine, which was an early and ongoing source of contention. Early leaders like William J. Gies, a biochemist at P&S and one of the school’s founders, believed that dentistry should be a separate profession, but similar to a specialty of medicine. Gies and his supporters maintained that the close affiliation of the dental and medical schools at Columbia would distinguish it from other schools of dentistry and make it an educational model nationwide. Today, Columbia Dental is one of only a handful of dental schools in the country where dental and medical students are educated together in a biomedical core curriculum during their first two years.

            Between 1935 and 1959, the dental school merged with the medical school.  The merger created some problems, however, most notably the temporary loss of the dental school’s accreditation, and the subsequent inability of its graduates to secure licenses in several northeastern states. “The way dentistry and medicine link together has been a constant issue in the profession,” says Dr. Formicola. The school’s several name changes, from the New York College of Dentistry in 1852, to the School of Dental and Oral Surgery in 1923, to the College of Dental Medicine in 2006 reflects its evolving identity. “It was controversial then and it’s controversial now.”

            The College of Dental Medicine has come a long way in the past hundred years. Enrolling some 320 DDS students and 120 post-doctoral students each year, its approach to dental care and education reflects the changing patterns and distributions in oral disease, the socioeconomic inequities that drive health disparities, and the scientific and technologic advances in oral medicine.  “You have to have so much knowledge to be successful today,” Dr. Formicola says. “The College’s research and education programs have expanded to include joint programs with faculty in the schools of public health, the medical school, Teachers College, and others in the University.”

            But to truly appreciate how far the College of Dental Medicine has come, he says, one need only look back at the school’s beginnings and progress over time. “I don’t think you can go forward  without a keen understanding of an institution’s history and culture ...You have to know what your principles are all about.”