Global Health Nexus, Winter 2004

In the Beginning

Irwin Smigel, DDS

Recently Global Health Nexus spoke with three pioneers who helped to usher in the era of aesthetic dentistry —Dr. Irwin Smigel, Dr. Ronald E. Goldstein, and Dr. K. William Mopper — and asked them to talk about their roles in bringing aesthetic dentistry into the mainstream of American life.

Global Health Nexus (GHN): I understand that you were one of the first practitioners to use the popular media to introduce aesthetic dentistry to the public. Could you talk about your experiences?

Dr. Smigel: In 1975, I was invited to appear on a New York radio program, the “Long John” Nebel show to talk about what was then known as acid etching, a reference to the acid that bonds restorative material to a tooth. On an earlier program, a well-known oral surgeon had walked out of Long John’s studio in a rage after the famously cantankerous host insisted that he discuss the potential dangers of X-ray radiation, rather than his surgical techniques. Having heard about this incident, I arrived for the interview with a sense of trepidation, but the usually belligerent Long John was so fascinated by the wonders of acid etching that his disposition that night was closer to a pussycat’s than a tiger’s. In fact, during a commercial break, he said: “People will be frightened by the thought of acid used in their mouths. Why not call it ‘bonding’ instead?” And it’s been known as bonding ever since.

But it wasn’t until 1980 that an opportunity arose to publicize bonding to a national audience. After reading my book, Dental Health, Dental Beauty, Los Angeles–based television talk show host Mike Douglas invited me to demonstrate bonding live on the air. Although I had a tough act to follow (Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher sang a song just before my segment), and just 40 minutes to repair a broken tooth and close a gap for a man from the studio audience, I managed to get the job done.

On my return to New York, I learned from Mike Douglas’s staff that the segment had attracted the largest response in the show’s history. Then, in 1981, after devoting 11 years to developing dental bonding and lecturing on it throughout the United States, I was invited to demonstrate the technique onThat’s Incredible — at the time the second highest-rated show on TV — where I proceeded to whiten and reshape a young ballerina’s tetracycline-stained teeth before the largest viewing audience ever to watch a dental procedure.

GHN: What was the response to that landmark telecast?

Dr. Smigel: There was such a surge in demand for bonding that it became necessary to quickly train more dentists, and to ensure that they were skilled enough to take on a large number of new cases. Accordingly, we restructured a professional organization that I had created in 1976, the American Society for Dental Aesthetics, to administer a training and certification program that would generate a base for referrals. I taught classes with several colleagues who were already adept at bonding, and then selected the most proficient students to become instructors. They, in turn, helped spread awareness of the technique not only in the United States but internationally as well. Today the American Society for Dental Aesthetics has probably taught more aesthetic dentistry to more dentists around the world than any other organization.

GHN: Were there other, less publicized, breakthroughs?

Dr. Smigel: There were many great innovations. Dr. Michael Buonocore introduced the revolutionary concept of acid etching to prepare teeth for fillings without invading them beyond the area of decay. Another pioneer, Dr. Raphael Bowen, created the original composite by incorporating a filler material into the plastic filling, making it stronger, longer lasting, and more aesthetically pleasing. The work of these two pioneers catalyzed developments that transformed dentistry’s scope and sent patients’ expectations soaring. In addition to bonded bridges, porcelain laminates, and infinitely stronger and more stable all-porcelain crowns, there came improved techniques for maintaining teeth, both endodontically and periodontically. Moreover, missing teeth were no longer automatically replaced with removable dentures. Now there were implants, which often rendered dentures unnecessary.

GHN: As you look back on your extraordinary career, what are your proudest achievements?

Dr. Smigel: I’m extremely proud that aesthetic dentistry has shown millions of people that it is possible to improve the smile you were born with and that it has changed forever people’s perceptions about dentistry’s role in enhancing the quality of life. I take added pride in having established the Smigel Aesthetic Dentistry Fund at NYU to provide aesthetic dental care for young people pursuing careers in the performing arts who would not otherwise be able to afford such care. Above all, I am proud and honored that NYU Dentistry has chosen to recognize me as the “father of aesthetic dentistry.”

Dr. Irwin Smigel, the founder and president of the American Society for Dental Aesthetics, has been at the forefront of developments in bonding, veneers, changing facial structures, and laser whitening.