University of Rochester

Dental Researcher William Bowen Honored

July 23, 1999

A dental researcher at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry who is one of the world's leading authorities on tooth decay has received two honors.

William Bowen, D.D.S., Ph.D., Welcher Professor of Dentistry, was awarded an honorary medical degree earlier this month from Trinity College in Dublin. Bowen shared the dais with such luminaries as Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel, former ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, and Garrett Fitzgerald, former prime minister of Ireland; the degree was conferred by Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and now United Nations commissioner for human rights. Bowen was also recently awarded the 1999 E.W. Borrow Memorial Award, funded by the Borrow Dental Milk Foundation, for his contributions to the oral health of children.

Bowen is best known for his contributions to our understanding of the causes and prevention of dental caries, or cavities. His initial discovery two years ago that lead makes rats more susceptible to cavities provoked further research by University dentists which showed that lead exposure puts children and adults at risk of developing cavities. Researchers now estimate that more than 10 percent of the tooth decay seen in children today is due to lead exposure.

The pain from tooth decay is felt by society in many ways. Annual treatment costs for cavities and their consequences, which are a major cause of sick days in the work place, are estimated to be as high as $20 billion. By age 17, 84 percent of children have tooth decay, and 95 percent of all adults in the U.S. have cavities. Many elderly people are at extra risk of tooth decay simply because they take medications for conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and depression: Many of these medicines inhibit the production of saliva, a substance that naturally prevents cavities.

"Dental caries are still a serious public health problem in the U.S. and throughout the world," says Bowen. "Many people think that dental caries is mainly a childhood problem, but actually it's a disease that continues throughout one's lifetime."

The awards are the latest in a long string of honors to come Bowen's way. Last year he was inducted into the Institute of Medicine, and he received the University's Kornberg Research Award for excellence in medical research. In 1997 he was awarded the Yngve Ericsson Prize in Preventive Odontology by the Swedish Patent Revenue Research Fund. He is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal College of Surgeons, and he has been awarded a total of five honorary degrees from universities around the world.

A native of Ireland, Bowen decided to pursue a career in dentistry while in high school, prodded by engaging interactions with an excellent science teacher and a local dentist. After earning a degree from the National University of Ireland, he worked in private practice for a year before coming to the University of Rochester, where he earned his master's degree. He subsequently received his doctorate from the University of London and a doctor of science degree from the University of Ireland.

Bowen held a variety of posts before joining the University in 1982, including serving nine years as head of the Caries Prevention and Research Branch of the National Institute for Dental Research. At the University he founded the Rochester Caries Research Center, one of the first research centers in the nation established to study tooth decay. He has also served as head of a Food and Drug Administration subcommittee that decides which dental products to make available to the public, and he headed the panel on safe use of fluoride for the Centers for Disease Control. Several students he has trained are now leaders in dental research in countries around the world.

Besides his appointment in the University's Center for Oral Biology, he is professor of environmental medicine as well as microbiology and immunology.