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The Dean of Dental Deans

The bewildered young freshman entered the Dental School building and was at a loss where to find the Dean's office. Noting a dishevelled looking individual in a worn and torn lab-coat he assumed that he must be a caretaker. Approaching him he inquired ‘Could you direct me to the Dean's office?' ‘By all means,' was the reply, ‘in fact I happen to be going there myself.' The freshman followed and when they reached the office he was amazed to see the janitor sit down in the Dean's chair and with a twinkle in his eye ask ‘Now, young man what can I do for you?'

This was typical of Harry Ernest Bulyea, the first Dean and founder of the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Alberta. Not only was he unassuming and dedicated, but without his devotion and hard work the first Dental School in Western Canada could not have been organized and maintained. There was no task too menial for him and no challenge, be it professional, artistic, political or financial, that he would avoid if it could further his beloved school.

Born on a farm in 1873 at Central Cambridge, Queen's County, New Brunswick, he received his elementary and high-school education at an ungraded Superior school. In 1893 he went to Boston and acted as an assistant to a brother who had a Dental office in Brookline, Mass. In the fall of 1894 he enrolled in the Boston Dental College. He then transferred to the Harvard Dental School and received the degree of Doctor of Dental Medicine in 1897. Following graduation he returned to New Brunswick and practised in Saint John for five years.

Harry Bulyea then decided he should investigate opportunities in Western Canada which was being settled by waves of new immigrants. After about 15 years in Saskatchewan and British Columbia he entered the summer course at Northwestern University to learn what was being taught about the new branches of dentistry, namely orthodontics and x-ray technic. The Dean at Northwestern at that time was the father of modern scientific dentistry, G. V. Black.

In 1915, Harry Bulyea decided to open a dental office in Edmonton and soon established a reputation as one of the most skillful practitioners in the area. In 1919, Dr. Tory, the president of the University of Alberta, approached him to teach in what was then known as the Department of Dentistry in the Medical School. His salary was the munificent sum of $30 per week. A complete course in Dentistry was organized in 1924 with the first students graduating in 1927. The Dental School proper was set up in 1929 with Dr. Bulyea as Dean. He continued in this role until his retirement in 1942.

When he assumed full-time teaching duties his salary was $2,100. When he became Dean, it was raised to $3,000. After the 1929 depression all University salaries were slashed. Bulyea was told he would be paid only $2 000 and it was typical of the man that it did not dampen his enthusiasm for the school. Eventually he received increments until he was earning $4,100 at his retirement.

The lack of finances did not deter him from supplying his students with the finest models and instruments. Gifted with a talent for digital dexterity he designed and manufactured his own instruments. One of his favorite quotes was 'only the poor carpenter complains about his tools.' He carved the most precise and accurate reproductions of human teeth from which moulds were used to cast models for the students. He devised a system of teaching dental anatomy that was so simple even the most awkward novice could learn to draw and carve acceptable copies of teeth.

He insisted that students must follow a five-step procedure in carving teeth. The first was a general outline on a plaster or ivory block, and each succeeding step introduced more detail. He warned students that they must not proceed until each step was graded in succession and he kept a little black book in which each step's grade was recorded in a secret code. One day I had completed the first step but couldn't find Dr. Bulyea to have it graded. He was always being called away from the laboratory in connection with administrative problems and, realizing that he might absentmindedly forget to return before the end of the lab session, I proceeded to complete the carving. He returned just at the end of the period and showing him my carving I said, 'I think I am finished, Dr. Bulyea.' He immediately pulled out his record book and, noting that I had not been graded for any of the preliminary steps, said 'Yes, you are finished all right, but you can just start right over again. I've told you repeatedly never to proceed to another step until the first one is approved.'

That memorable quote has stayed with me and even today, some 40 years later, I repeat it to my own students under similar circumstances. Taking shortcuts is the first step to inferior quality, particularly in professional technics. Another one of his sayings that has stayed with me was expressed when an orthodontic appliance that I had been struggling to construct for about two months broke. Noting the shock and chagrin on my face, he said 'Remember, it is not the man who never gets into trouble who is good; it's the man who knows how to get out of trouble who is really worthwhile.' He then proceeded to do a quick repair which resulted in an appliance even stronger than the original.

On the wall of his laboratory was a picture of a very crooked river. The caption read ‘Following the lines of least resistance makes both rivers and men crooked.' Anytime a student was tempted to use an easier technic than the one he taught, Dr. Bulyea always pointed to the motto and asked the student to memorize it.

Dr. Bulyea lived to be 103 years old. The Latin term sans menti en sans corpore, a sound mind in a sound body — aptly describes his condition to the very end. He attributed his longevity to moderation in diet and exercise and, above all, being occupied with work that he enjoyed.

My wife and I visited him at his home in Edmonton before he passed on. In a jocular aside to my wife he said, ‘When Isadore was a student I was tempted to flunk him a few times. However, being absentminded, I forgot about it and somehow he graduated.' As a memento of our visit he presented us with one of his oil paintings, a still life for which he had received an award at an exhibition. He mentioned that someone had once told him that the apples in this scene were so realistic that one was tempted to bite into them. Dr. Bulyea always insisted on realism in his art work. Besides being proficient at painting, sculpturing, photography and jewelry, he built houses and was an expert mountain-climber. One of the great tragedies in his life was the death of his son during a mountain climbing expedition. Dr. Bulyea broke a leg climbing one year but that did not deter him from hobbling around the school with crutches for a whole term.

He had infinite patience with his students. As long as they were making a sincere effort he would assist them in every fashion. However if they were lazy or, worse, if they were caught cheating he would not only expel them but inform every Dental School on the continent.

At the opening ceremony for the Faculty of Dentistry at the University of Manitoba he was called upon to receive the honorary degree of LLD by his former student, Jack Neilson, the first Dean at Manitoba. Another of his many honors was an honorary Fellowship in the Royal College of Dentistry.

Published Summer 1982.

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