Think Pieces from the Professors
the latest in contemporary & evidence-based orthodontics
A Tribute to Prof – Sarver, Fields, Larson, Vig, Turpin, McNamara, Johnston, & The Professors Remember Him in Their Own Words
On Sunday, September 30th, 2018, Dr. William R. Proffit passed away.
To so many of us, Dr. Proffit was simply ‘Prof” – a lasting nickname given to him by James Ackerman when W.R. Proffit was just 26 years old. In retrospect, it was a more apt name than either Proffit or Ackerman might have guessed.
Prof has been, quite literally, the single most widely influential Professor of Orthodontics in living memory.
Here, the Professors remember Prof in the words of those lucky enough to have known him.
Dr. David Sarver
My first meeting with the Prof was actually on my first day of residency at the University of North Carolina. He was out of the country at the time of my interview, so I did not really get to meet him until I reported for work. In my first year at UNC, my wife was working at IBM in Raleigh, and I was working one evening a week and on Saturdays in a local dental practice to make extra money. When our first semester break came, everyone left for vacation or home except me. I showed up at the department on Monday morning because my wife had to go to work. I had no money to go anywhere, so I decided I would just show up and see what was going on.
As I walked past Prof’s office, he looked up from his desk and informed me that, “Dr. Sarver - school is out”. I told him my situation, and I volunteered to be of help that week, if any was needed. I can’t describe the look he gave me, but all of us who knew Prof know the look. He sighed (again, a signature Prof sigh), turned around in his chair, and on the desk behind him was a stack of manuscripts that apparently was his reading assignment from NIH for review of grants. He picked up this stack of papers, at least a foot tall, rotated back around and handed them to me saying, “Read these and summarize them for me.” Whoa, not what I expected!
In any event, I retreated to the library for the next two days, read all the grant proposals, wrote up my summaries, and returned Wednesday to plop them on his desk. Thus began a long and warm relationship. The rest of the week, he had me working on all of his surgery cases and on anything else he could think of.
One thing about the Prof, once he was onto something he liked, he stuck with it. The first time we went to Ono Island to work on something or another, I took him to a local seafood restaurant (a hole in the wall) on the Bay, and recommended the shrimp Po’ Boy. That is what he ordered - and a beer. Well, he liked it so much we went back the next day for lunch, and he ordered the shrimp Po’ Boy. For dinner that night? Same place and a shrimp Po’ Boy. So it went.
I know that there are so many stories I could tell, and as Jim Ackerman and I were swapping stories last weekend, we talked about his intellect and how we were in awe of it. I have many personal memories of our travels together, our writing experiences together, and I summarize our working relationship as being like the proverbial carrot and stick. Prof was pretty light on the stick, but he really understood how to dangle a carrot. As soon as I was reaching the end of whatever project we were on and thought I had the carrot, he would move the carrot out a couple more feet. And so it goes…
Dr. Henry Fields
Bill and I were introduced at a CE course when I was a resident at UW in 1975. Two years later, we were working together and did so for over 40 years. Teaching, working on curriculum and teaching materials, research and writing Contemporary Orthodontics were all part of it.
He always had a vision of what he wanted to do and how you fit in. He was a relentless worker and expected the same of colleagues. He was focused on how to make understanding of orthodontics better for students and practitioners. Better teaching methods and better research were at the heart of it. He did this as a physiologist dressed up as an orthodontist.
He liked to know how things worked and he liked gadgets. Eruption--how, when, primary failure, bite force? Early treatment-- how, Cl II, III, versus what else? Equilibrium theory-- measuring it? Surgical treatment-- changes and stability? Malocclusion-- how much, where, when, who? Teaching-- was there a better way? Any physiologist would love biomechanics.
His ~50 years of prominence was based, in my opinion, on his strength of organizing facts and ideas by breaking the problem down into understandable units. Simplifying and giving things structure were his forté. And, he did this with plain language. The Ackerman- Proffit diagnostic system is a good example. That, timing of treatment, and complexity, were the basis of the textbook that he wanted to be aimed at predoctoral and introductory graduate student education.
He will be missed by the profession and his friends and family, and certainly by me. He had a good run, I know he was proud of it and wanted more, but he can rest and know he "did good."
Dr. Brent Larson
Prof was my teacher, my mentor, and my friend. It was Prof who gave me the initial opportunity to be an orthodontist, and it was he who got me my first academic position. Most recently, I had been working with him, along with Henry Fields and David Sarver, on the 6th Edition of Contemporary Orthodontics. As we worked together, I marveled at his vast knowledge and continued passion for orthodontics, and I came to appreciate Prof even more as a person.
I will be forever grateful for the opportunity he gave me to know him better through this project. He continually motivated me while working on the book by saying "I've always found things get done better if you put a deadline on them," and then he would give me a deadline that I thought was not achievable - but somehow it got done. I will miss being able to speak with him on a regular basis for feedback and advice, but will continue to be motivated by the things I have learned from him over the years.
Dr. Katherine Vig
I first met Bill Proffit on the Raleigh Durham train station platform in July 1976. I had crossed the Atlantic from England on the QE2 with our children, aged 3 and 5, and a mound of luggage to join my husband Peter Vig, who had been recruited to the UNC Orthodontic faculty at Chapel Hill.
It was a multi-carriage train from New York, and Bill Proffit took one end and Peter the other end of the train. Bill, with his knowledge of trains, knew where the luggage would be located. As I stood on this long and lonely platform, I noticed a tall man walking towards me who held out his hand and said in his slow Southern drawl “You must be Miss Kate” and I replied ‘You must be Bill Proffit’ - but how did you know it was me? He looked at me with a quizzical smile and said ‘You are the only person standing on this platform with 2 little children and a mound of luggage!
Bill Proffit was a mentor, friend, and inspiration for so many of us. He defined my career in the USA with an abundance of opportunities. I was the most junior and only woman faculty in the Orthodontic department in the late 1970s – this was at a time when we had accepted our first woman Resident into the UNC Orthodontic Program.
Bill Proffit’s enthusiasm and leadership defined the UNC orthodontic program. He had a brilliant, analytical mind capable of unravelling complex concepts, which made him a sought-after speaker and a unique teacher. His self-confidence was a strength in his leadership, and he was always supportive and encouraging to his Junior faculty. He was easily underestimated, with his measured speech and courteous demeanor. For those who decided to be combative, it was at their peril for Bill Proffit had a quick wit and an encyclopedic mind which made him a formidable adversary.
Bill Proffit’s encouragement, support, guidance, and understanding defined my career during the 8 years I was at UNC and continued over the next 30 years. I was not alone in taking advantage of his insightful guidance, and all of us who worked with Bill Proffit knew the advantages of ‘Opportunity Time’.
Bill Proffit was recognized for the speed and accuracy of his intellect and writing. His use of the English language resulted in a prolific publication record and in distilling the orthodontic curriculum for the most widely read Orthodontic textbook throughout the world Contemporary Orthodontics, currently in the 6th edition. From my perspective, it is the end of an era and throughout the world we are grieving the loss of a unique individual and leader in the Orthodontic profession.
Dr. David Turpin
Bill Proffit was never known to “brag” about anything he accomplished…with one exception.
With every manuscript he submitted for publication to either The Angle Orthodontist or the American Journal of Orthodontics & Dentofacial Orthopedics over the period of 24 years when I served as Editor of those journals, he expressed pride in how concisely each one was written. He would claim that every manuscript he submitted was carefully crafted to be as brief as possible, without a wasted word. No puffery or extensive quotes from other authors for this department chair. To the best of my memory, he stuck to that promise throughout his highly productive career.
Dr. James McNamara
My association with Prof extends back over 40 years. My first lasting memory of Bill was when he invited me to speak in Myrtle Beach at the UNC Alumni meeting in 1977. After arriving in Chapel Hill, Sarah, Prof, and I drove to the beach, with my sitting in the back seat. That 4-5 hour trip was my first introduction to Prof’s humor and his style of speaking. The topics of conversation ranged from my recent to trip to visit Rolf Fränkel to his growing up in North Carolina. It was a memorable and enjoyable trip. As a side benefit, I first met one of my now best friends Rusty Long who was finishing his PhD at UNC. Many of my other close friends, including David Sarver and Jim Greer, were educated at UNC, so Prof’s influence always was present, even when he was not.
Bill always was generous with his time when asked to speak at the University of Michigan. He was one of the most frequent speakers at the annual Moyers Symposium. In 1985, Prof was the first Jarabak Lecturer, speaking on the then new NiTi archwires wires. He spoke many times at the Graduate Orthodontic Residents Program (GORP) meetings. And, almost every year, he was a featured speaker at the Annual Session of the AAO. He always was willing to share his knowledge with others, both nationally and internationally.
It was no surprise to me that Bill Proffit was named the recipient of the AAO’s first Lifetime Achievement Award. His grant support has been plentiful over the years. He has published a wide range of journal articles, from physiology to orthognathic surgery. His textbook, Contemporary Orthodontics, is the most widely read orthodontic textbook ever written. He also has collaborated with others in helping them write their own articles and textbooks, always giving generously of his time—even in retirement.
But most of all, Prof was a mentor, to residents, dental students, and post-docs as well as junior faculty and seasoned faculty both at UNC and elsewhere. The ripple effects of his efforts have spread worldwide to affect patient care everywhere and will continue to have effects long into the future.
I have great respect for the life and career of Bill Proffit. He was a caring individual who earned the respect of all around him. He always will be remembered as one of the all-time true leaders in orthodontics.
Dr. Lysle Johnston
Bill's death is a sad event in the history of orthodontics.
He was a true giant: his book is currently the received authority on things orthodontic (especially for the ABO written exam), and his RCT was one of the first in our specialty to qualify for the secret handshake from Kevin O’Brien. Needless to say, Bill was very smart and, perhaps as a result, he was largely uninhibited by an excess of humility or collegiality (e.g., competition in the “match").
Personally, I never heard him give a bad/ill-constructed lecture; his early jokes, however, are a different matter. In truth, I rarely disagreed with him, but when I did, I knew that I had to have my ducks in a row before speaking out.
It would be gilding the lily to say more. He was a true giant.
Dr. Tung Nguyen
I still remember excitement coursing through my veins at the prospect of meeting Dr. William R. Proffit in 2004 for my residency interview.
Prof, as we affectionately call him, was a figure as large as life … a rock star, the Elvis Presley of orthodontics. The man I met was soft spoken, unassuming individual with somewhat difficult to comprehend southern accent, very different from the celebrity image my mind had created.
Prof is the best teacher I’ve ever had. He has an amazing ability to distill complex concepts and information into simple organized points, “Pooh Bear” logic, as he would call it. He’s extremely intelligent, but carries himself in a humble manner. Prof not only taught me orthodontics; he taught me about professionalism, ethics, and most importantly, he taught me how to think critically. There’s something so charismatic about him that makes you want to please him or at the very least, not disappoint him.
We worked harder, re-read assigned articles, and made sure our treatment plans were perfect before presenting them to him. He motivated and inspired you to be better than you thought possible of yourself.
It has been a decade since I’ve completed my residency. I was in the last class to train clinically with Dr. Proffit. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the “opportunity” to learn from this amazing man and to have been around him for most of my academic career. I will continue to learn from him, and perhaps the best gift he has given me is his passion for education and the love he has for his students, friends, and family. There are days when I tire of school politics and bureaucracy; I think about the thousands of students he has taught, motivated, and inspired, and I hope that I can have a small fraction of that impact during my career.
Dr. Clarke Stevens
I had no idea when I went to study orthodontics with Bill Proffit that I would find a mentor and friend. He was as interested in his student's success as his own. He challenged me in the pursuit and process of my orthodontic career.
Prof helped mold a diverse dental specialty into a specialty with academic excellence and integrity. Generations of orthodontic residents must thank Prof for teaching us how to think for ourselves and develop treatment plans and orthodontic care. I thank God for giving me Prof and for Prof’s lavish sharing of his life and friends.
Dr. Ching-Chang Ko, for the UNC Department of Orthodontics
Dr. Proffit had a huge impact, not only on orthodontics, but also on other disciplines such as pediatric dentistry and oral maxillofacial surgery at UNC and around the world.
Chapel Hill is the home of the “Proffit School”, the place where the stories shared around the globe through Contemporary Orthodontics originated.
Prof will be missed by all of our departmental colleagues, students, and staff. His legacy will continue in those who learned from the master, as they pass their skills and knowledge on to the next generation of orthodontists.
Dr. Tate Jackson
Prof was a true friend and inspirational motivator in my life. I will miss him. Like so many of us, he gave me the opportunity to have the job - and in many ways the life - I wanted.
His legacy will live in all of us whom he taught.
This website is a project he supported with the energy and enthusiasm of a young man – even until the very last day he was alive.
We invite you to share your memories of Prof in the Comments below.
Think Pieces are longer-form editorials on selected topics.
Tate H. Jackson, DDS, MS