Philip Terman, DDS ’62, a Larger-than-Life Teacher and Mentor, Retires
By Andrea Kott, MPH
Philip Terman, DDS ’62 has unique insight into the human spirit. A maxillofacial prosthodontist and accomplished clarinetist, he understands more deeply than many that, when their mouths do not function, people suffer.
“To be unable to eat, swallow, or talk — these are conditions that challenge the human condition,” says Dr. Terman, who dedicated his more than 50–year career to oral reconstruction. “I’ve spent a lifetime helping people whose well-being has to do with something I did.”
On June 22, the Columbia Dental community celebrated Dr. Terman with a retirement party. Faculty, staff, alumni, friends, and many members of Dr. Terman’s family gathered for an evening of food, drink, and music in the Faculty Club to recognize him for his 13 years at Columbia, including 11 years as director of Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) and for, among other things, expanding the base of internationally trained practitioners who would go on to treat underserved populations locally and abroad.
“Dr. Terman spent many years leading a very successful program with many students and he taught them not just dentistry but about service, the United States, New York, and music,” said Dean Christian S. Stohler, DMD. “He is someone who brought color to many of our lives. “
Thomas Boyle, DDS, a former resident who trained under Dr. Terman, added praise: “Phil transformed that residency program into a general dentistry powerhouse, Dr. Boyle said. “‘The Terminator,’ [as we called him] was fiercely protective of all of us — he taught us to be committed but not attached, drove us to distraction with Mozart’s “Magic Flute” ringtone on his phone, and made us work as a team.”
The party came as something of a surprise to Dr. Terman, a lifelong jazz musician, but then, so had becoming a dentist. After all, the New York City native was regaling audiences with the smooth sounds of his clarinet and saxophone by the time he was a student at Stuyvesant High School. “As a 16–year-old, I would play from 9 a.m. Saturday morning to 9 p.m. Saturday night,” he recalls. He briefly attended New York University (“I didn’t give it the attention I should have”) but soon followed his heart to Colorado, the University of Denver, and the professional music scene.
“I played with a band that traveled regionally in the west,” he details, nonchalantly mentioning his occasional jams with the likes of Stan Kenton and meeting other jazz luminaries like Duke Ellington. Dr. Terman loved his life as a reedman and likely would have stayed in it, had he not learned of a bandmate’s arrest for smoking marijuana. “By the grace of God I wasn’t there,” he recalls, sounding almost shaken, still. “I didn’t like the associated risk of playing music.”
His ob-gyn father was hardly disappointed when Dr. Terman decided to quit performing and begin dental school, which he did in the fall of 1958. Four years later, while interning at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, he learned about the possibility of reconstructing the mouths of head-and-neck cancer surgery patients.
“You could really be of help to people who had cancer of the oral cavity and the face, people who couldn’t speak, eat, or swallow,” he says. “The ability to help change their lives was present all the time.”
Dr. Terman completed a two-year residency at Sloan. By 1967 he was on staff at the hospital as a board-certified maxillofacial prosthodontist and had also opened his own practice. In 1979, he became a director-at-large for the American Cancer Society, a post that he held until 1998.
The practice took off right away. Between referrals from his father and the surgeons at Sloan, he did not want for patients. Then came the horn players. Word had spread throughout the city’s jazz community that Dr. Terman the dentist was also a fellow reedman. Soon, he was caring for the bites of some of the biggest jazz musicians who ever lived, not to mention their bandmates. “It was a fabulous time for me because my great love in life was music.”
Dr. Terman had the nuanced ability to understand how dental problems hampered musicians’ ability to play their instruments, and how to help restore their embouchure—the way the lips and mouth form around the mouthpiece. “People who play wind instruments need good teeth to hold the mouthpiece and create sounds, and I had extensive experience in the reconstruction of mouths,” he explains. “I made it possible for them to play again.”
In addition to helping resurrect the careers of many wind musicians, Dr. Terman revived his own musical life. The constant proximity to horn players, either in his office or at the jazz clubs he frequented, inspired him to pick up his clarinet and saxophone again, take some refresher lessons and begin performing, which he does to this day with a quintet at the Friars Club on East 55th Street in Manhattan.
Renowned musicians weren’t the only stars occupying Dr. Terman’s dental chair. His wife of 26 years, Toni, had been a successful singer and dancer in Las Vegas, where they’d briefly met decades earlier. They reconnected after she moved to New York and, needing a dentist, looked him up on the advice of a friend. “I married her in a New York minute,” Dr. Terman said.
In 2002, at the age of 66, Dr. Terman closed his private practice. Soon after, he accepted an offer to teach in Columbia Dental’s AEGD section and, in 2006, to become its director. The experience was rich and rewarding, and gave him the opportunity to increase the diversity in the program by accepting more international students and encouraging them to practice in underserved areas. “A great goal of this university is to provide service to people who are underserved.”
Although retired, Dr. Terman shows little sign of slowing down. “I’m really looking forward to practicing 10 hours a day for a while,” he says, noting that he plans to continue playing regular gigs at the Friars Club. He also plans to continue teaching at the school and, most important, advising and guiding students who share his passion for making a difference in people’s lives. “I have spent my life as a catalyst for helping people to re-engage in their lives. This is the essence of bringing the best to humanity that I could.”