September 4, 2018
The first time George Wenckebach set foot in the United States, he parachuted in as a member of the national Dutch skydiving team. This was just one example of a lifetime of adventure, which included a fellowship at the Forsyth Institute.
Wenckebach was originally from the Netherlands and received his dental degree from Utrecht University. But he wanted to teach and practice dentistry in America, and got his start at Forsyth through a research position. Wenckebach then went on to become an instructor at Tufts Dental School and open his own dental practice in Boston.
As a token of his gratitude to Forsyth, Wenckebach donated his trust funds and assets to the institute – an amount that totals about $2.5 million.
“We are so excited and honored to receive this generous gift from George Wenckebach,” said Dr. Wenyuan Shi, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Scientific Officer of The Forsyth Institute. “These funds will help the institute continue to address critical oral and overall health challenges, and innovate in the field of dentistry. George’s gift will have tremendous impact, and we are so grateful.”
A life of adventure
Up until his death from cancer in 2010, Wenckebach was known as a risk-taker and adrenaline-seeker. One of his many diverse hobbies was ski mountaineering, in which he would take a helicopter to the tops of mountains in the Swiss Alps and ski down. He also enjoyed cave spelunking, skydiving, traveling, and sailing.
As a teacher, Wenckebach was “meticulous and demanding,” said his former student and friend Thomas Carroll.
“He kept high standards for all of us and didn’t accept any compromises at all,” Carroll said. “George knew that dentistry is a very precise profession, and if you’re going to do it well, you have to do it in a very precise manner.”
Wenckebach was also known to be stubborn, said Buell Hollister. Buell and his wife Margaret were friends of Wenckebach and his wife Diane for more than 20 years. They were also his dental patients.
Buell and Margaret recalled a time when Wenckebach was in Newport, Rhode Island working on one of his boats. He fell and shattered his ankle. After being treated at Massachusetts General Hospital, doctors told Wenckebach it was unlikely that he’d ever walk again.
“But they didn’t know George,” Margaret said. Within six months, Wenckebach was walking without a cane. Soon after that, he was skiing again. This strength in the face of adversity persisted even through a cancer diagnosis. Wenckebach was initially told he had about four months to live, but turned four months into four years.
Wenckebach’s stubbornness showed through his professional life as well. He once attempted to insert a gold inlay into his own tooth, holding the mirror and drill himself.
“He got about halfway through and then finally, sanity rang, and he said, ‘Here Tom, finish this for me, will ya?’” said Carroll.
As a dentist, Margaret and Buell recalled Wenckebach being very good and very stern, especially about the importance of flossing. He also used ancient equipment he inherited from another dentist who had retired.
“This dental machinery was almost steam-powered,” Buell said. “But it worked.”
Wenckebach had a small practice of loyal patients who kept coming back, despite the unique equipment. “His work was excellent from a technique and quality point of view,” Carroll said. “And he had all kinds of great stories that got your mind off the work being done on you.”
Committed to dentistry
Wenckebach was a member of the Massachusetts Dental Society and attended the Yankee Dental Congress every year, even when he was no longer practicing. Wenckebach was intellectually curious, Carroll said, and wanted to stay abreast of new advances in the field. He was also critical of anything that was “hyped-up as the greatest thing in the dental world,” Carroll said.
“He was very committed to dentistry, and very appreciative of the fact that Forsyth gave him a chance in the beginning,” Carroll said.
The trust money will be used to establish an endowed fund in honor of George Wenckebach.