August 5, 2009

A Life in Full

Robert Chapman, longtime force in teaching and research at the School of Dental Medicine, becomes a professor emeritus in August

By Julie Flaherty

In the late 1970s, Robert Chapman, A63, D67, DG74, then on the faculty at Tufts Dental School, was having lunch with George Zarb, a respected prosthodontist from Toronto. Zarb mentioned that he was traveling to Sweden because he had read some compelling scientific literature by Per-Ingvar Brånemark on the possibility of dental implants becoming a reality.

“If something really interests me, I start investigating it and putting together what might seem to be very disparate pieces of information,” Robert Chapman says. Photo: Webb Chappell

“And I pooh-poohed it,” Chapman recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s not going to happen. All these charlatans talk about dental implants, and they are just trying to make money.’ ”

A few years later, Zarb introduced dental implants to North America, making a science-backed case that impressed even the skeptical Chapman. Now it was his turn to convince Tufts Dental School to embrace the technology. He and Norman Shepherd, D64, DG67, then a professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery, volunteered to give lectures about implants to students after-hours. They got a company to donate materials, persuaded the school to invest $30,000 in equipment (“In 1985, this was a lot of money,” Chapman says), and the Tufts Dental Implant Center, one of the first in the country, was born.

The implant center is just one milestone for Chapman, professor and chair of the department of prosthodontics and operative dentistry. He has lectured internationally on prosthodontics, occlusion, craniofacial function, quality of life in dentistry and dental implants. He has written articles, research abstracts and textbook chapters. He is a triple Jumbo who is leaving a legacy of teaching, research and even ethics reform when he retires as a professor emeritus later this month after 35 years on the faculty. Not that he’s particularly slowing down. He’ll continue to see patients in his private practice and has scheduled a trip to dental schools in Thailand and Singapore, where he will consult on electronic dental records, among other things.

Chapman knew he wanted to be a dentist from about age 12. He was indirectly influenced by his mother, a nurse, who taught him to care for others, and his father, an electrician, who taught him the value of being your own boss. He may also have been thinking of his family dentist, who lived in a nice house and, more memorably, had a nice car. “He drove a Packard,” recalls an admiring Chapman.

After getting a bachelor’s degree in biology and a dental degree from Tufts, he spent five years as a dental intern in the U.S. Navy, where he did exciting things like work at a top-secret communications base in Australia. But perhaps most important, he worked for an inspiring oral surgeon, Robert Middleton, who was in charge of the dental service at Oakland Naval Hospital, where Chapman did his internship.

“He was one of those people who had tremendous curiosity about everything,” Chapman says. “He knew a lot because he read a lot. And he encouraged all of us interns to read a lot,” including dental journals from other specialties. That was how Chapman came to learn about temporomandibular disorders, a lesson that helped him make the first big difference in a patient’s life. The patient, a naval officer’s wife, had persistent head pain that no one could explain.

“For years she had been seeing psychiatrists and ear, nose and throat specialists,” Chapman recalls. The woman had had extractions as a kid, but without replacements for those missing teeth, her jaw muscles and joints were not properly positioned. “I made her dentures that opened up her bite, and she became pain-free for the first time in 20-some years. I was so proud of myself.”

After the Navy, Chapman was offered a teaching fellowship in the prosthodontics department at Tufts. “I found out I really liked the teaching part of it as much as the prosthodontics,” he says. He earned his postgraduate certificate in 1974 and stayed on as a faculty member.

Curiosity, Data Collection and DNA

When he returned to Tufts, Chapman brought along the curiosity he had learned from his mentor, Middleton. “If something really interests me, I start investigating it and putting together what might seem to be very disparate pieces of information,” he says. “That has probably been one of the things that has made me successful in some ways and thought of as being a little wacky in others.”

For example, a friend who practiced transcendental meditation led him to a book on how meditation can benefit the body, including lowering blood pressure. Chapman wondered if TM could help with wound healing. Although he couldn’t test meditation per se, he and his colleagues at Tufts did find some interesting connections between its opposite—psychological stress—and the immune system. Looking at saliva samples from dental student volunteers, they found that students had fewer salivary immunoglobulins (markers of immune health) during exam periods and more after less-stressful times, such as summer break. The results were published in the Lancet in 1983. With his interest in the immune system piqued, he went on to study how well bone heals around different implant surface materials.

But perhaps Chapman’s biggest embrace of the disparate was seeing a connection between dental health records and DNA. It came out of conversations with his brother-in-law, a Compaq executive who sold supercomputers to biologist Craig Venter for use in mapping the human genome. As soon as electronic health records systems became available to dental schools in the early 1990s, Chapman saw the potential for mining that data. Just as the map of the human genome has provided scientists with new avenues for advances in medicine, the properly coded dental records of large numbers of patients could help researchers identify patterns, such as links between certain medications and gum disease.

Chapman, the school’s director of informatics, founded and chairs a consortium of 20 dental schools that have adopted a standardized form for collecting patient information; eventually, they will share their data.

“There are a million patient visits a year out of these 20 schools,” he says. What is the first burning research question researchers will seek to answer? All in due time.

“This is a tool,” he says. “Sometimes tools have to be made before you come up with the questions.”

In his spare time, Chapman has sought to improve ethics education at the School of Dental Medicine. He was instrumental in establishing the school’s ethics committee in 1996 and creating a two-year ethics course that all students take. It warns students of the moral—and practical—pitfalls of actions like “taking money from insurance without doing the work or claiming more [work] than is warranted,” he says. “If you’re caught, you suffer badly.”

Chapman used to say that many of his successes were serendipitous, until a friend pointed out that he had opportunities and the intuition to take advantage of them. “Not in a bad way,” he adds. For example, at the first meeting of the implant research group of the International Association for Dental Research, “I think 11 of us showed up,” he says, “which was just exactly the number that was needed to fill all the officers’ spots.” He later became president of the research group.

If nothing else, retirement may give Chapman more time with his partner of nine years, Marc Yang, a professor of French literature at Wingate University in North Carolina, and with Yang’s two teenage daughters, who he counts as part of his family.

Asked how his students would characterize him, Chapman replies, “Past students would say tough but fair.” Now that others teach the bulk of the classes in the department he heads, he only has to be fair.

“One thing I learned in the Navy was the captain should always be the good guy,” he says. “The executive officer is the S.O.B.”

Julie Flaherty can be reached at

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