Alumni Profile | Dr. Eric Curtis ’85 Making Familiar Things New

By David W. Chambers 

“The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.” Attributed to Samuel Johnson, William Makepeace Thackeray and others.

If you want to see some examples of the latter, read Dr. Eric Curtis. It is worth it.

Curtis graduated from the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry in 1985, followed by a year of residency at the University of Lausanne Faculty of Medicine. His first of many articles in Contact Point appeared in 1990—30 years ago.  In addition to histories of the American Association of Orthodontists and the University of Oklahoma, he chronicled the amazing twists and turns of the first hundred years of our school.

“The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”

In his book, A Century of Smiles, Curtis recounts significant moments in the dental school’s evolution under the leadership of various deans. P&S students were the first in the country to wear gloves, masks and gowns in the clinic in 1906. That was because of a brief outbreak of the plague following the earthquake and fire. In 1923 four alums bought the charter of the school from its entrepreneurial founder Charles Boxton for $50,185. The contract stipulated that Boxton’s wife Elsie would stay on as janitor. In the 1930s, P&S introduced the nation’s first six-year combined BS + DDS degree program, which still exists. P&S remained the last independent dental school even though the Second World War saw a blossoming of interest in public health dentistry, research and technology such as the high-speed handpiece. Dean Earnest Sloman’s collaborative work at Stanford University almost led to an amalgamation in the early 1950s. Deans John Tocchini, Dale Redig and Arthur Dugoni turned what was once called the “school that would not die” into one that others wanted to be like. Dr. Ed Sims graduated in 1983, but just barely. Because of a motorcycle accident a few weeks before he could complete his clinical requirements, the school rallied to his assistance. That included professor of dental materials Armand Lugassy personally mixing impression material. Somehow, Curtis has the magic of putting us there so we can see it for ourselves.

Curtis practices in rural southeast Arizona. His has been a family practice in every sense of the word. For 31 years he worked side by side with his father, Dr. Kay D. Curtis. Eric’s daughter, Jillian, has been the hygienist in the practice for seven years. And the patients, they are like family too, both in the sense of many three-generation families and in the way people are treated.

Somehow, Curtis has the magic of putting us there so we can see it for ourselves.

What would a creative writing dentist have to say about this? Listen to excerpts from “Half Pipe Dreams,” a story that appeared in the Journal of the American College of Dentists in 2009:  A make-shift roller dome mysteriously appeared in the backyard one weekend and Curtis wanted an explanation from his son. “Tristan responded to my complaint with the single-minded, numbing circularity that makes parents fear their kids will grow up to be lawyers. ‘Tristan, why didn’t you ask us?’ ‘Um, I didn’t think about it. Scott was here this week, and you know, he knows how to build half pipes. Besides, you might have said ‘no.’ ‘Of course I would have said no.’ ‘Then why would I have asked you?’” Aren’t you there, totally amazed by a sloppy construction and the sloppy, but perfectly adolescent logic that supported it? But Curtis can see deep things. “Tristan vows that he will teach his children to skate and be ‘gnarly.’ Tristan will be blindsided by the coming irony. His children will grow up, blossoming unpredictably, carnations on rose bushes, to become—not inconceivably—studious, complicated and non-skaters.  He will rebel.  He will hate their music.”

There is humor and beauty and depth in the details that Curtis assembles for us to consider. He knows that we will separate the meaningful and human from the superficial. He calls it writing the truth. “It is value-laden and personal, an interpretation of reality.”

Curtis has been active in dentistry at the organizational level, including the American Dental Association, where he took an assignment on the Council on Communications, and the Arizona State Board of Dental Examiners. He has served stints as president of the American Academy of the History of Dentistry, the American Association of Dental Editors and Journalists, the Arizona Dental Foundation and the Arizona Dental Association. For 30 years, he has served as editor of the Arizona Dental Association.

Curtis is comfortable working at the policy level, but his writing allows us to touch and feel the small things, the personal reality on which dentistry is based. His collection of very short essays, From Hand to Mouth: Essays on the Art of Dentistry, is filled with glimpses of the ordinary but special things of practice. He notes that “artists and doctors both take on dual functions as participants in and detached observers of society.” 

“As a dentist, I write to find out what I do,” says Curtis. Writing makes the patient into a person, and the dentist, too. “If the reader comes away with any broader appreciation of dentistry’s cultural weight, I will count this volume a success.” 

The story “Hurry Up and Wait” reminds patients and dentists alike of a faint sense of lost status when the waiting room is too full for the patients and not full enough for the dentist. He muses that the American Association of Dental Surgeons initiated a pledge of no amalgams in 1856 and was defunct by 1859. He has an essay on the art of small talk at chairside, including mastering the art of the one-way conversation. Ironically, dentistry has killed pain and its association with guilt and inevitability. Pain, when it does happen, now suggests lack of caring or competence. “Open and Say Aw” is a commentary on dentistry’s surrender of craftsmanship in the name of efficiency.

He notes that “artists and doctors both take on dual functions as participants in and detached observers of society.” 

There is nothing to do but smile as you thumb through the titles of essays in From Hand to Mouth: “Dr. Jargon and Mr. Hide,” “The Incarnations of S Mutants,” “The Culture of Painlessness,” “Believe in the Tooth Fairy” and “Paddling Down the Root Canal.” 

Curtis teaches creative writing in the Arizona state educational system and practices family dentistry. He makes familiar things new.