Global Health Nexus, Spring 2000

Then and Now: Some Special Alumnae of NYU Dentistry

Recently, Global Health NEXUS asked three women, members of the Classes of 1947, 1980, and 2000, to talk about their experiences in dental school and about how dentistry has enabled each of them to advance a message of science and service.

Dr. Cecelia Dows, Class of 1947, never intended to be a pioneer, but destiny obviously had different plans for her. The first female science major in the first class of women to enter Fordham University, Dr. Dows graduated with a B.S. degree in chemistry in 1941. She became the first female analytical chemist employed by the Esso Corporation of Bayonne, New Jersey; the first female trustee of the Bayonne Board of Education; and the first female president of the New Jersey chapter of the NYU Dental Alumni Association. In addition, Dr. Dows was the first female president of the Pierre Fauchard Dental Society and the first female president of the Essex County Dental Society. She has also served as president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Association of Women Dentists. In 1980, she was presented the Woman of the Year Award by the New Jersey Association of Women Physicians.

But dentistry did not always offer a warm welcome to Dr. Dows, who was stunned by a series of rejections. "I remember applying to seven or eight dental schools and being accepted by only two -- New York University and Columbia. I was a top student, with honors galore, but the rejection letters were all the same. 'We do not accept female students.' To be refused by all the other schools because I was a woman! All I could think of was why? Why?"

Once in dental school at NYU, however, she and the only other woman in a class of 115 students, Dr. Marion Marcuson, were wholeheartedly supported by the male students. "That sent a message to the faculty," says Dr. Dows.

"It's probably difficult to believe now, but I was very shy before I entered dental school," says Dr. Dows. "Because I had to prove myself over and over as a woman in a nearly solid male fortress, I found my voice, and I have never stopped speaking out about issues that affect the future of the profession that I love."

This year, Dr. Dows begins her 52nd year as a private practitioner.

Dr. Donna J. Rumberger, Class of 1980, became a dentist because she wanted to make people look good. "My first choice was to enter medical school and eventually practice plastic surgery. My father, who felt that medical education was wasted on a girl, had other ideas."

So, Dr. Rumberger became a nurse, a more traditional female occupation to which her father had no objection. But she longed for more. When she was accepted at NYU in 1976, where she was one of only 18 women in a class of 200, she also found her "voice" -- the voice of a leader.

During her senior year at NYU Dentistry, Dr. Rumberger became active in the American Association of Women Dentists (AAWD) and started attending local AAWD meetings as well as meetings of the local dental society, a route that eventually led her to the presidency of the Midtown Dental Society, along with membership on the Board of Directors of the New York County Dental Society, then known as the First District Dental Society. Last year, she served as national president of the AAWD, and she is currently president-elect of the New York County Dental Society.

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Rumberger founded Smiles for Success, an AAWD program composed of volunteer women dentists in New York City who provide cost-free dental care for women struggling to get off welfare. The program operates in cooperation with Suitability for Success, a not-for-profit organization that provides the women with the essentials of a working wardrobe.

"Working with the Smiles for Success participants is one of the most gratifying experiences of my life," she says. "It is a wonderful way to give back some of the many benefits that dentistry has given me. Dentistry opened up a world of professional opportunities for me, and I feel that I am doing the same for other women.

Another way in which Dr. Rumberger chose to "give back" was by facilitating a major gift of scholarship funds to the College from the Henry and Henrietta Quade Foundation, where she serves as president and trustee. Thanks to Dr. Rumberger, the Quade Foundation has provided generous financial support to help alleviate the tuition burden for 36 students.

Vera W. L. Tang, Class of 2000, is graduating in a year laden with historical symbolism -- a year that marks the dawn of a new century and a new millennium not only for dentistry and dental education, but also for women in dentistry. One hundred years ago, Dr. Linda Rosenberg's grandmother was an anomaly when she graduated from Temple University School of Dentistry. Today, Vera is one of 149 women graduating in the Class of 2000.

But although Vera is emblematic of the "new" woman dental student, who has never experienced gender discrimination, she is also aware that a new era for women in dentistry brings new challenges.

"I am glad that I did not have to break down the barriers that kept dentistry only marginally open to women for so many years," she says. "But considering the rise in the number of women dentists, it is disappointing that women are still not well represented in organized dentistry. In academia, the barriers have pretty much been broken down. There are several women dental school deans and many women in positions of authority at every level of dental education. But except for Dr. Geraldine Morrow in 1992, no other woman has been president of the American Dental Association, and women are not as well represented as they should be on the governing boards of state dental societies."

If anyone can change that situation, it is Vera. The only current female trustee of the American Student Dental Association (ASDA) and the ASDA representative to the Board of Governors of the Dental Society of the State of New York, she has traveled all across the United States to lobby on behalf of dentistry. Her efforts have been recognized with the ASDA Leadership Award and the NYU President's Award for Leadership, as well as two consecutive ASDA Awards for Excellence.